Alaattin Güner: Major newspaper distribution company executive faces lifetime in jail on absurd charges

A media professional who had managed Turkey’s largest home delivery network for independent and critical newspapers is now being tried on charges of terrorism and coup plotting along with dozens of journalists in Turkey’s largest press freedom case.

Alaattin Güner, 45-year old man who worked as the general manager of Cihan Medya Dağıtım (CMD), the biggest home delivery network that distributed 5 critical newspapers to subscribers across Turkey’s 81 provinces, was jailed on August 4, 2016 after 10-day detention in the aftermath of the controversial coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

He was placed in pre-trial detention in notorious Silivri prison in İstanbul where the convicted felons were incarcerated. He had not even seen the courtroom for 14 months until the first hearing in the case was held September 18, 2017 on the indictment that seeks three aggravated life sentences for him on coup plotting plus 15-month jail time.

Güner’s name appears twice in the 68-page indictment penned by Prosecutor İsmet Bozkurt against 31 journalists and media professionals, most of whom worked for Zaman daily, one-time the largest circulated newspaper in Turkey before the government seized on March 4, 2016. The first citation of him in the indictment is recorded among the list of defendants without any explanation on why he was charged and what evidence the government has against him. The second time his name was mentioned is at the end of the indictment where the prosecutor demands the punishment of suspects.

There is no single line in the indictment that why the government is accusing him of coup plotting and terrorism and what is the evidence, if any, that warrants his punishment and keeping him in pre-trial detention. The farce indictment gives a feeling that being employed in a company that did nothing other than delivering critical newspapers to residential and commercial customers every single day.

CMD was highly successful business venture in Turkey with 2,400 employees that are dedicated to insuring home delivery of more than 700 thousand copies of newspapers on a daily basis. The government seized the company on March 12, 2016 on trumped-up charges of terrorism in order to deal a lethal blow to the critical and independent media outlets that relied on CMD to bring the newspapers to the subscribers.

The CMD also served as a billing company for the media outlets that outsourced payment collection and subscription services to the CMD which was buying the papers in bulk and selling to the readers. The seizure of the distribution network not only made it impossible for the critical dailies to send the paper through home delivery system but also cut-off the vital funding that was required to finance the newspaper’s business.

When the CMD was unlawfully seized, the first thing the government-appointed caretakers did is to halt the home delivery of 5 newspapers. The company was transferred to Turkey’s state-run Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) on November 21, 2016 along with other 976 companies that were confiscated unlawfully by the Erdoğan regime as part of the unprecedented crackdown on critical and opposition groups in Turkey. The Gülen movement has borne the brunt of the witch-hunt persecution along with the Kurdish political movement and others under increasingly oppressive regime of Turkey that locked up 281 journalists behind bars so far.

Güner appeared before the judge in İstanbul’s Çağlayan Courthouse to defend himself against the absurd charges on September 18, 2017 for the first time after spending 419 days in pre-trial detention. A group of columnists and media professionals who worked at Zaman daily, Turkey’s one-time largest newspaper before the government takeover, appeared next to him. The nation’s prominent columnists Ali Bulaç, Ahmet Turan Alkan, Şahin Alpay, Mümtaz’er Türköne and Mustafa Ünal were among 31 suspects whom then government asked for three lifetime sentencing based on their published articles, some from four years ago.

The trial, the largest number of journalists who are tried in a single case ever, did not even gain much attention in Turkey because of the climate of fear the government has created in the last couple of years. Not a single daily in Turkey including few critical ones that left standing with very limited readership dared to cover the trial from the first page on the day it was started.

Thanks to a few human rights activists and brave journalists who reported minutes of the court hearing through social media accounts, the world was able to hear the voices of the defendants. Even that little attention mainly focused on big names in the trial while leaving Güner and other lesser-known figures on the backburner.

Güner who worked in the media industry for years denied charges in the first opportunity he was given to address to the court. “There is no accusation against me in the indictment,”’ he emphasized. He made a clear and concise point to the fact that CMD had not dealt with the content of the newspapers at all but simply delivered the published copies to their customers. “Content is under the responsibility of the publisher. CMD simply distributes newspapers, magazines, catalogues and leaflets,” he noted.

He even cited that among the CMD clients included Yay-Sat, a general distribution company owned by pro-government Doğan Media Group that delivered papers only to newsstands and commercial clients as well as the Turkuvaz, another newly started distribution company owned by Turkish president Erdoğan’s family. He recalled that CMD distributed not only Zaman and Bugün newspapers that are seen affiliated with the Gülen movement but also Referans and Radikal newspapers that were owned by Doğan Media Group.

“I worked in the business of distributing newspapers, respecting the relevant laws that deal with my business,” he remarked. He added that he cannot fathom how distributing newspapers are suddenly associated with aggravated felony charges that he is now facing.

Güner, who became a father for the third time while he was jailed, now awaits December 8, 2017 for his second trial.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has showed that 281 journalists and media workers are now in jails as of September 26, 2017, most in pre-trial detention languishing in notorious Turkish prisons without even a conviction. Of those in Turkish prisons, 256 are arrested pending trial, only 25 journalists remain convicted and serving time in Turkish prisons. An outstanding detention warrants remain for 135 journalists who live in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down more than 180 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Turkey’s Contemporary Journalists’ Association (ÇGD) recently announced that more than 900 press cards were cancelled.

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