None of the four still-imprisoned representatives of Turkey’s independent newspaper Cumhuriyet were released following a hearing yesterday that international observers widely condemned as “unfair”.
“Let’s be loud and clear in condemning this judicial charade,” Swiss journalist and vice chair of the International Press Institute (IPI)’s Executive Committee Markus Spillmann said following the close of the proceedings. “There shall be no compromise in fighting against such ongoing neglect of basic civil rights. Neither in Turkey nor elsewhere.”
Spillmann called on IPI and the journalistic community it represents to ensure that such breaches of fundamental rights do not go unnoticed.
Eighteen current and former journalists, executives and staff of the country’s leading independent daily – including columnist and IPI Executive Board Member Kadri Gürsel, Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu and investigative journalist Ahmet Şık – are currently on trial, facing charges of seizing control of Cumhuriyet and slanting its coverage to support terrorist groups and subvert democracy.
Both Sabuncu and Şık – who are also IPI members – have been held since late 2016, along with Akın Atalay, CEO of the paper and chair of the foundation that owns it. A fourth defendant, Cumhuriyet accountant Emre Iper, has been behind bars since April. Gürsel was released in September after nearly 11 months in prison.
During the course of yesterday’s proceedings, judges prevented Şık from delivering a blistering statement condemning the government’s conduct, interrupting him two minutes into what would have been a two-hour-long statement. Saying that Şık was “speaking outside the lines of his defence”, the court accused him of having “disturbed the order in the courtroom” and eventually expelled him from the courtroom.
In protest of that decision and in solidarity with Şık, Sabuncu and Atalay then refused to deliver statements they had prepared.
In the portion of his statement that he was able to deliver aloud, Sik strongly criticised Turkey’s government, calling it a “dictatorial regime which feeds off violence and is based on cruelty and oppression”. He further argued that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had taken control of the media “through confiscations and buy-offs”, turning media outlets into “the voice of the current government”.
IPI, in a statement endorsed unanimously by its Executive Board ahead of the yesterday’s proceedings, described the charges against the 18 defendants as “preposterous”, noting that “that this case is intended to silence Cumhuriyet, one of the country’s few remaining opposition voices, and to send a message to others who might dare to publish news or criticism deemed unwelcome by the ruling political establishment”.
It continued: “Such behaviour is both wholly unacceptable and completely antithetical to justice, good governance and human decency.”
In related news, IPI member and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Turkey Representative Erol Önderoğlu appeared before a criminal court in Istanbul today with co-defendant Şebnem Korur Fincancı in a separate case charging them and 37 others with making terrorist propaganda in 2016 for supporting now-shuttered, pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem’s right to publish. The defendants are on trial for having served as a symbolic “co-editor-in-chief” of the newspaper for a day, respectively, as part of a campaign that began on May 3 – World Press Freedom Day – in 2016.
According to news reports, both Önderoğlu and Fincancı expressed concern today about the court’s decision to interrupt Sik’s defense and to expel him from court.
The case was adjourned to April 18 on the ground that the third defendant in today’s case, writer Ahmet Aziz Nesin, is currently abroad and an arrest warrant against him could not be executed.
IPI has previously condemned the case against Önderoğlu as “a deliberate and completely unwarranted act of intimidation,” aimed at “telling those who would stand up for media freedom in Turkey to ‘sit down and shut up’”.