CPJ calls on Turkey to stop equating journalism with terrorism

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Thursday condemned a Turkish court’s decision earlier in the day to sentence 25 journalists to prison on terrorism-related charges and called on Turkish authorities to release them without delay.

“The sentencing in Istanbul today of at least 22 journalists on anti-state charges is a disgrace to Turkey’s justice system, and we call on authorities to drop the charges on appeal,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said from New York.

“Turkish authorities must stop equating journalism with terrorism, and release the scores of press workers jailed for doing their job.”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has also condemned on Friday the sentences ranging from two to seven years in prison that 25 Turkish journalists received on March 8 in a political mass trial in İstanbul targeting opposition journalists.

The sentences were issued after the 25 journalists were convicted of supporting or being members of a movement led by US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, regarded by the Turkish government as a “terrorist organization” and blamed for an attempted coup in July 2016.

“We condemn these sentences as an act of political despotism, not an act of justice,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said. “After this trial, we must conclude that no vestige of the rule of law remains in Turkey. Once again, we call for the immediate release of all journalists convicted arbitrarily.”

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) also criticized the Turkish court’s decision.

“Concerned by today’s decision of 25th Criminal Court in Istanbul to imprison several journalists incl. @murataksoy & @AtillaTasNet. The severe charges were never proven during the investigation. I urge #Turkey to free the journalists & drop unfounded charges against them,” OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir tweeted on Thursday.

There were 29 defendants in the trial, 19 of whom were in pretrial detention.

The İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court, which heard the trial, handed down seven years, six month sentences to journalists Ahmet Memiş, Ali Akkuş, Muhammed Sait Kuloğlu, Mustafa Erkan Acar, Oğuz Usluer, Ufuk Şanlı, Yetkin Yıldız, Cuma Ulus, Mutlu Çölgeçen, Ünal Tanık, Seyid Kılıç and Davut Aydın on charges of membership in a terrorist organization.

The court ruled for the re-arrest of journalist Akkuş, who was released last April.

Journalists Abdullah Kılıç, Cihan Acar, Bünyamin Köseli, Cemal Azmi Kalyoncu, Halil İbrahim Balta, Bayram Kaya, Habip Güler, Hanım Büşra Erdal, Yakup Çetin, Hüseyin Aydın and Gökçe Fırat Çulhaoğlu were given six years, three months on charges of membership in a terrorist organization.

Journalist and singer Atilla Taş, who was released from prison last October after spending 14 months in jail, was given a sentence of three years, one-and-a-half months on charges of deliberately aiding a terrorist organization, while journalist Murat Aksoy, who was also released along with Taş last October after spending 421 days in jail, was given two years, one month in prison on charges of deliberately aiding a terrorist organization.

The court rejected the prosecutor’s request for the re-arrest of Taş and Aksoy and removed the obligation to sign in at a police station regularly yet ruled for the continuation of their travel ban.

Only one journalist, Muhterem Tanık, was acquitted in the trial. She is the wife of journalist Ünal Tanık. Journalists Bülent Ceyhan and Said Sefa, who are among the defendants of the trial are at large; hence, their files have been separated from the others. The file of journalist Emre Soncan was already separated from this trial earlier.

The final hearing of the trial resumed on Wednesday and continued on Thursday during which the defendants made their final defense statements and asked for their acquittal. All the journalists said in their defense statements that they only performed their jobs as journalists and did nothing unlawful. They said the media organizations they were working for, which were later designated as being linked to a terrorist organization, were all respectable organizations that operated within the boundaries of the law.

The court acquitted 13 journalists of charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and attempting to destroy the Republic of Turkey.

Speaking to reporters following the announcement of the verdict, journalist Taş said: “This is a judicial decision, we have to respect it. I say all the time that I have had faith in justice, I have always believed in it. I did nothing other than show opposition [to the government]. If being an opponent is a crime in this country, then I am guilty.”

Following a July 15, 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish government designated the Gülen movement as a terrorist organization in a development that many say was politically motivated. Working at a Gülen-linked media organization, depositing money in the Gülen-linked Bank Asya or even downloading the mobile phone application ByLock, which is the top communication tool among the Gülen followers according to Turkish authorities, are all seen as signs of being a member of a terror organization.

Zaman, which was Turkey’s best-selling newspaper, was taken over by the government in March 2016 and then closed down in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt. Zaman angered the government with its critical stance and extensive coverage of a corruption scandal that erupted in late 2013.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 245 journalists and media workers were in jail as of March 8, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 190 were under arrest pending trial while only 55 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 139 journalists who are living 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. (SCF with turkishminute.com)

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