ISTANBUL — Journalists and staff from a Turkish newspaper staunchly opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have gone on trial in Istanbul, accused of aiding terror organizations — a case that has added to concerns over rights and freedoms in Turkey.
The 19 defendants, including Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, commentator Kadri Gursel and cartoonist Musa Kart went on trial on Monday — a day that is marked as press freedom day in Turkey. They are accused of sponsoring several outlawed organizations, including Kurdish militants, a far-left group and the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen who is blamed for last year’s failed coup.
Twelve of the defendants are in jail, while five were released from custody pending the outcome of the trial. Two of the suspects, including Cumhuriyet’s former chief editor Can Dundar, are being tried in absentia. Dundar is in Germany.
Some of the Cumhuriyet staff members have been in prison for nine months. They face a variety of prison terms ranging between 7½ and 43 years. Those questioned on Monday, including Gursel, denied the accusations against them.
A few hundred of their supporters gathered outside the courthouse demanding their acquittal and release, shouting “Rights, law, justice!” and “Freedom for journalists!”
Turkey’s journalism syndicate also marched from the Cumhuriyet newspaper building to the courthouse, holding Monday’s edition of the paper.
“This case is about criminalizing journalism. It’s about punishing those who speak out. And if it works here today in this week, they will do it again, again, and again,” said Steven M. Ellis, director of communications of International Press Institute, who arrived in Istanbul to observe the trial, along with other representatives of international media freedom advocacy groups.
The Cumhuriyet arrests were part of a widespread government crackdown in the wake of the coup attempt, which has led to the imprisonment of more than 50,000 people, including journalists, opposition lawmakers and activists. Critics say the crackdown that initially targeted people suspected of links to the failed coup has expanded to include government opponents.
As part of the crackdown, about 160 journalists are currently in jail, mostly on terrorism-related charges, while more than 150 media outlets, from broadcasters to newspapers and magazines, have been shut down, leaving thousands unemployed. The country is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
The government insists that the journalists have been arrested for criminal activities — not for their reporting.
In Berlin, Dundar told The Associated Press in an interview that it was “ironic” that his colleagues were defending themselves in court on Turkey’s press freedom day.
“We are defending our news (reports), our articles, our tweets — nothing else,” he said. “It’s a case about journalism not terrorism,” said Dundar, who runs a bilingual news website in Berlin.
Dundar was convicted of revealing state secrets after he published a report about alleged arms shipments to Syrian rebels. He left for Germany after he was freed on appeal.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Dorothee Thiesing in Berlin contributed.