Journalism is still a crime in Turkey

It has been called “Kafkaesque”, “surreal even by Turkey’s own standards”, “utterly absurd” and “tragicomic”. Some described it as an unprecedented attack to intimidate the independent media.

The five-day long trial of seventeen journalists and executives of Cumhuriyet newspaper in Istanbul was widely seen as a “test for Turkey”. A joint statement by international observers said that its outcome would signal ‘the place human rights and the rule of law would hold in the country’s future’.

After nine months in pre-trial detention, the indictment against 17 journalists and board members turned out to be hastily gathered, baseless accusations, relying on flimsy evidence and factual errors.

Defense lawyer Alp Selek has said in his 60 years of professional life he had never seen an indictment that “invented crimes from scratch”.

Faced with a blatant abuse of due process and a perversion of justice, in a politically motivated trial, some of the accused chose to defend themselves with powerful counter-indictments.

Columnist Kadri Gürsel, an executive board member of the International Press Institute and its Turkey National Committee Chair, delivered a blistering defence of media freedoms. “The reason that I am here in front of you is not because I “helped a terror organization while not being a member.” It’s because I was an independent, critical, questioning journalist and because I have never compromised my work as a journalist and always insisted on doing my job correctly” he said.

Ahmet Şık, the investigative journalist that was jailed in 2011 after writing a book exposing the Gulenist infiltration of state institutions but now being accused of helping the Gulenists and the banned Kurdish PKK , used his testimony to question the government’s record.

“This is not a statement for my defence, because I consider doing so as an insult to journalism and to the ethical values of my profession. Because journalism is not a crime,” he said.

The Istanbul 27th Heavy Criminal Court , where the bulk of the evidence was journalists’ writings, ruled that five of the defendants, including journalists Kadri Gürsel, Ahmet Şık and Murat Sabuncu, be returned to prison and the trial to be continued on 11 September. Additional criminal charges would be brought against Ahmet Şık for his testimony. 7 of the accused were released with judicial supervision. According to the court’s interim decision, the next hearing will be held in Silivri Prison, away from the prying eyes of the international and domestic observers and supporters.

The release from prison of lawyers Mustafa Kemal Güngör,Bülent Utku, cartoonist Musa Kart, literary supplement editor Turhan Günay, columnists Güray Öz and Hakan Kara, printing adminstrator Önder Çelik, was welcomed but the mood among families and supporters was subdued.

Rights groups and opposition politicians called for the release of all of the 17 defendants and Turkey has come under further criticsm.

There were appeals to keep up the international solidarity and intense media interest in the cases, but as one veteran  independent Turkish journalist, Ruşen Çakir pointed out, the higher the profile, the less likely it seems for a journalist to be freed in today’s Turkey.

This post is also available in: Turkish

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