Turkey’s Critical Journalists Face Trial On Terrorism Charges

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In a public display of the disheartening state of media freedom in Turkey, journalists and staff from a secular opposition newspaper went on trial on Monday and Tuesday in Istanbul, after nine months of pretrial detention, with hearings set to last the entire week.

During the second day of the hearing, editors and columnists from the Cumhuriyet newspaper, the oldest of the Turkish Republic, appeared at Caglayan Courthouse in Istanbul, defending themselves in what they say a politically-motivated trial. They rejected terrorism charges, portraying the trial as an expanded political war on journalism.

The first hearing on Monday commanded public attention, with national and international observers attending a packed courtroom under heavy security measures.

It was another episode in Turkey’s mass media trials that brimmed with despair, disbelief, cynicism and zealous rejection of the indictment that seeks lengthy prison sentences for dissident journalists ahead of a critical meeting between EU leaders and the Turkish authorities this week.

During his defense, the newspaper’s chief executive Akin Atalay dismissed charges as ridiculous and baseless. For him, the major aim is to silence Cumhuriyet or seize it. “The second aim is to show other journalists their fate and in practice what will happen if they write what the government does not like,” he told the courtroom.

Seventeen journalists, 12 of whom have been in jail, stand trial over terrorism charges, making propaganda on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or adopting a favorable editorial line in support for U.S.-based Turkish cleric and his movement.

In an outright rebuke of the accusations, chief executive Atalay insisted that Cumhuriyet “never had any relationship with a terrorist group. It’s only activity is journalistic.”

Nothing more than the charges of Gulenist links that could infuriate the defendants given Cumhuriyet’s long, palpable discord with the Gulen movement over Turkey’s political affairs. In the indictment, the prosecutor accuses some of the journalists of having contacts and meetings with members of Gulen-linked media.

Kadri Gursel, a well-known columnist, said he talked to them “as a journalist for professional purposes.”

“Journalists are curious by nature and our job is to present a different perspective to the public. That is journalism,” he said in his defense.

“I am not here because I knowingly and willingly helped a terrorist organization, but because I am an independent, questioning and critical journalists,” Reuters quoted Mr. Gursel as saying during the court hearing.

In one of the most memorable scenes, security guards did not allow the veteran columnist to hug his son, provoking bitter fury on social media, the newspaper said on its website.

“The indictment seems to rely on reporting — they spoke to people or reported what they said,” Steven Mr. Ellis, a director of the International Press Institute, a global network for media freedom, of which Mr. Gursel is a board member, told The New York Times. “We see that claim as most suspicious.”

Former Editor-in-Chief Can Dundar is being tried in absentia. He is in self-imposed exile in Germany after surviving an assassination attempt outside the same courtroom last year in a separate case.

In a display of solidarity, French and German newspapers went to print with large headlines on the front page, standing by Cumhuriyet when the trial began on Monday.

The provisional decision is expected on Friday while expectations for the release of the journalists run low. The trial is seen as a clear-cut manifestation of a travesty of freedom of expression and media as the state of emergency suspends or removes essential measures that safeguard basic freedoms in public domain.

Nearly 200 journalists are behind bars. The Cumhuriyet trial constitutes only one aspect of a larger drama about Turkey’s fraying democracy and liberties. Turkey’s rumor mill has been on overdrive about a potential new purge wave in bureaucracy and the military.

Already more than 150,000 public servants, including generals, judges, prosecutors, and teachers, have been sacked by government decrees, while 50,000 people jailed pending trial.

In a country where journalists, as in the Cumhuriyet trial, would face up to 43 years in prison over news reports and social media posts if found guilty, hope for a bright future is a scarce commodity, with the prospect of a political solution appearing to be in short supply.