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.