Turkish Journalist Defends Press Freedom as Grand Trial Begins


ISTANBUL (The Guardian) — A top Turkish correspondent delivered a powerful defense of press freedom as he took the stand in the largest trial of journalists in the country, saying he was being punished for doing his job and criticizing Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism.

Kadri Gürsel, one of 17 journalists, lawyers and executives from Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest newspaper, who are standing trial on charges of aiding and abetting terrorist organizations, urged the presiding judge to drop the charges, saying the fact that he was standing trial on flimsy accusations was proof that his warnings of creeping authoritarianism were prescient.

“I am here because I am an independent, questioning and critical journalist, not because I knowingly and willingly helped a terrorist organization,” he said. “Because I have not compromised in my journalism and I am persistent until the end. All these accusations directed to me are devoid of wisdom and reason, and are beyond the scope of any law or conscience,” he added.

Turkey has become one of the world’s largest jailers of journalists, with 178 behind bars. Since a traumatic coup attempt last July, 173 media outlets have been shut down and 800 journalists have had their passports and press credentials confiscated, according to opposition statistics.

The government crackdown on the press continued in the aftermath of the coup under the ongoing state of emergency. Much of Turkey’s media has been coopted by the government, and journalists accuse the ruling party of putting pressure on advertisers to abandon struggling opposition newspapers. They say the lawsuits and the imprisonments of journalists have created an environment of fear that promotes self-censorship. Few local newspapers reported on the start of the trial.

Cumhuriyet has borne the brunt of the government’s ire because of the newspaper’s harsh criticism of its policies. It condemned as a “witch hunt” a crackdown after the coup that has ensnared tens of thousands of civil servants, judges, military and police officers, academics as well as dissidents, and endorsed a peaceful resolution to the crisis with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at a time when tensions with the group were spiraling.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

It also embarrassed the national intelligence service by revealing that it had transported weapons to rebels in Syria under the guise of humanitarian aid in 2014, a leak that the government says was orchestrated by Gülenists.

“Cumhuriyet shows the fascist side of the ruling party,” said Baris Yarkadas, an opposition MP who visited the imprisoned journalists and was attending the trial. “That is why they want to suffocate it. They are not just prosecuting a newspaper, but they want to prosecute republican values. They want monarchy, not republican rule.”

The Cumhuriyet trial has drawn broad condemnation from human rights and press freedom advocates, who say the allegations are unfounded and politically motivated, with the aim of muzzling the last major newspaper that is strongly critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party. They see the threat of closure for the staunchly secular newspaper, founded in 1924, as an assault on the founding values of the republic.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the Çaglayan justice palace near downtown Istanbul to protest against the trial, which is taking place nine months after the journalists were first incarcerated. People outside the courtroom clapped for the journalists as they were marched into the crowded premises, which were filled with lawyers, family members and international observers.

The initial phase of the trial is expected to continue until Friday with defense statements from the journalists, and the judge is expected to rule on whether to release them on bail while the case continues. On Monday, Gürsel testified, along with the head of the newspaper’s executive board, Akin Atalay.

The start of the trial coincided with the National Press festival in Turkey, celebrating the declaration of a constitutional monarchy by the Ottoman rulers and the abolition of censorship in 1908, an irony that was pointed out by observers of the case.

Topics: Turkey

Many have also noted the apparent absurdity of the charges, whereby newspaper staff are accused of aiding and abetting terrorist organizations that they have long challenged publicly in their newspapers. The indictment accuses them of supporting the goals of the Fethullah Gülen movement — believed by many in Turkey to have orchestrated last year’s coup — and the PKK.

“The indictment charges them for aiding and abetting terrorist organizations, but what did they do in reality? Nothing but news,” said a statement by the journalists’ syndicate, whose members attended the trial. “The word ‘news’ appears 667 times in the indictment … A newspaper as old as the republic is being accused of supporting terrorism only based on the fact that its employees made news.”

“We will neither leave our friends and colleagues alone in those prisons nor resign ourselves to oppression, threats and thugs,” the statement added.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: