The International Press Institute (IPI) blasted yesterday’s court ruling in Turkey extending the detention of five Cumhuriyet journalists, executives and staff another two weeks, and renewed calls for their release.
Judges in a courtroom inside the high-security Silivri prison complex on the outskirts of Istanbul, where four of the five have been held since last year, again rejected the defendants’ request for release pending trial, saying it first wanted to hear more witness testimony.
The ruling came at 11:30 p.m., some 13 hours after proceedings began. It was delivered as at least 80 security officers, half wearing riot armour and many carrying clubs, formed a barrier separating defendants from families and supporters in the courtroom.
IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis, who was part of a group of international observers present to monitor proceedings, criticised the “unseemly display of force” and said observers were “extremely disappointed” by the ruling.
“Anyone following this case can see it is about punishing those who speak out and intimidating others who might similarly dare,” Ellis said. “We admire the bravery of those in Turkey standing up against this injustice and we will continue to stand with them in resisting Turkey’s slide into autocracy.
He continued: “These men – and far too many others – have been behind bars for far too long in a case that should have been laughed out of court for its implausibility. We call for them to be freed immediately, and renew that call for every journalist behind bars in Turkey for his or her work.”
IPI Executive Board Vice Chair Markus Spillmann, who was also at yesterday’s hearing, called it “a showcase of bravery and pride to be a journalist in today’s Turkey”. However, he added: “Again, it was not facts and arguments that prevailed, but strange theories and political prejudices. Free media has made its stance. And we will never give in to false accusations.”
Prosecutors are demanding prison terms of up to 43 years on charges for 18 journalists, executives and staff from the paper, as well as two others. The government claims that the paper’s news reporting and its criticism of government policy was intended to support terrorist groups, including the movement led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen – whom Turkey’s government blames for the July 2016 coup attempt – as well as outlawed militant Kurdish and leftist groups.
Defendants behind bars include Cumhuriyet Chief Executive Akin Atalay, Publications Consultant and Columnist Kadri Gürsel – a member of IPI’s Executive Board and chair of its Turkey National Committee – Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu and investigative journalist Ahmet Şık.
Authorities detained Gürsel and Sabuncu in late October, and Atalay days later. A fifth defendant, accountant Emre İper, has been held since April on allegations that his phone contained a secretive communications app, “Bylock”, said to have been used by Gülen’s followers.
Following witness testimony yesterday, Gürsel in a statement before the court again refuted the government’s theory that attempts by alleged Bylock users to contact him showed that he was part of a conspiracy to aid terrorists. He maintained, instead, that he was on trial for being “a critical, independent and questioning journalist who always insisted on doing my job correctly”.
Seven other journalists and executives were detained with Gürsel and Sabuncu for nine months before the court ordered their release at the close of initial phase of proceedings in July. IPI representatives who were present said that the case was a “politically motivated effort to criminalize journalism”.
Those proceedings took place at Istanbul’s Çağlayan courthouse, to which proceedings on Sept. 25 are set to return.
Observers have criticised the case as a bid by Turkey’s government to silence one of the country’s few remaining opposition voices and send a chilling message to others about airing unwelcome news reporting or criticism.
With 171 journalists behind bars, Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, the vast majority of whom were detained in a sweeping crackdown on dissent amid an ongoing state of emergency declared after the 2016 coup attempt.