Cumhuriyet journalists appear in Turkish court 267 days after their arrest

Trial of 17 suspects, including Cumhuriyet daily journalists and executives who were arrested in November 2016, began at an İstanbul court on Monday 267 days after the daily’s staff members were arrested by Turkish government.

An indictment drafted by the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in April 2017, originally mentions 19 suspects that includes former Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar, who left Turkey before a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

The charges brought against 17 Cumhuriyet employees in their April indictment accuse them of aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) and FETÖ. FETÖ is a derogatory term and acronym for the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, coined by Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to refer to the Gülen movement, accused by the Turkish government of masterminding the failed coup attempt. The movement strongly denies any involvement in the failed putsch.

The suspects mentioned in the indictment are Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu, the daily’s chief executive officer Akın Atalay, Editor Turhan Günay, editorial consultant Kadri Gürsel, member representative Güray Öz, cartoonist Musa Kart, columnist Hakan Kara, lawyers Bülent Utku and Mustafa Kemal Güngör, manager Önder Çelik, reporter Ahmet Şık, publisher Orhan Erinç, columnists Aydın Engin and Hikmet Çetinkaya, accountant Günseli Özaltay and a former employee Bülent Yener.

During the hearing on Monday, Cumhuriyet  daily’s editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu has demanded his plea to be adjourned to July 25, stating that some of his documents and newspaper reports had been confiscated. The court accepted his request.

Meanwhile, journalist Kadri Gürsel said claims on his connection with the “FETÖ” were baseless, adding that he did not reply to any calls or messages from “the organization.” He also said he had no signing authority at the daily’s management.

The CEO of the daily, Akın Atalay, described the investigation into the newspaper as “a complete legal murder,” stating that the goal was either to silence the daily or take it over. He said the daily had no relationship with organizations that infiltrated the state, vowing to continue its struggle to carry out journalism to the end. Atalay has also said accusations that the editorial policy of the daily had been changed over the past three years did not reflect the truth, adding that it was “dubious” to use such an issue to frame an accusation based on the penal law.

Monday morning, some opposition legislators, journalists, rights activists, Cumhuriyet readers and many citizens gathered in front of the Çağlayan Courthouse. Also, another group gathered in front of the Cumhuriyet building in the Şişli district and started to march towards the courthouse.

The suspects were arrested by the İstanbul 9th Penal Court of Peace on November 5, 2016. Also, Atalay, was detained at İstanbul Atatürk Airport upon his return from Germany and subsequently arrested on November 12, 2016.

“The start of the trial against journalists and board members of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet highlights the urgent need to protect journalism and improve media freedom in Turkey, Harlem Désir, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media has stated on Monday

“I will closely follow the proceedings that started this morning in İstanbul against 17 prominent journalists, editors and board members of Cumhuriyet, including Can Dündar, Kadri Gürsel, Murat Sabuncu and Ahmet Şık,” Désir said in a written statement.

“Journalism plays an essential role in advancing democracy. I therefore call on Turkey to drop the charges, release all journalists imprisoned for their work and initiate much needed policy reforms to protect media freedom in the country,” he stressed.

Désir recalled the OSCE’s strong condemnation of last year’s coup attempt and emphasized the need to safeguard democratically elected governments. “I fully understand the challenge of fighting terrorism and protecting national security, but it must be done with full respect for fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression,” Désir said.

“Freedom of expression and security must go hand in hand as the only effective means of building and sustaining a strong and democratic society. An open and accessible free media also provides the space for debate on difficult issues, including identifying peaceful solutions,” stated Désir.

Désir also noted additional concerns about the state of freedom of expression in Turkey, affecting not only journalists but many others exercising their right to express critical or dissenting views, including social media users, human rights defenders and academics. “The measures taken under the current state of emergency constitute unnecessary and disproportionate pressure on the freedom of expression and media freedom in the country. I reach out to the authorities to engage in thorough policy and legal reforms to protect these freedoms. My office stands ready to assist Turkey in this very important process,” he said.

Prosecutors are seeking between 7,5 and 15 years in prison sentence for Dündar, editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, IPI Board Member Kadri Gürsel, Aydın Engin, Bülent Yener and Günseli Özaltay for “helping an armed terrorist organization while not being a member.”

CEO of the daily Akın Atalay, Mehmet Orhan Erinç and Önder Çelik are charged with “helping an armed terrorist organization while not being a member” and “abusing trust,” with the prosecutor demanding between 11,5  and 43 years in jail for them.

Between 9,5 and 29 years in jail is demanded for Bülent Utku, caricaturist Musa Kart, Hakan Karasinir, Mustafa Kemal Güngör and Hikmet Aslan Çetinkaya on the same charges as those directed at Atalay, Erinç and Çelik.

In addition, the prosecutor sought between 7,5 and 15 years in prison for journalist Ahmet Şık for “helping and being a member of the PKK and the DHKP/C.”

Also on Monday, several press organizations including the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC), Turkish Journalists Union (TGS), Turkish Press Council and PEN Writers Association have condemned Turkish media for failing to cover the trial of 17 Cumhuriyet journalists and executives.

The press organizations issued a statement criticizing the Turkish media for their indifference to the trial of the 17 suspects, who were arrested in November 2016, and said that “It is a shame that those trials watched by journalists from other countries are not covered in any of the newspapers except a few in the mainstream media of the country [Turkey]. …The trial of this many and such well-known journalists is newsworthy everywhere in the world.”

Referring to the French Liberation daily, which allocated six pages to the trial, the statement added that “We condemn all media organizations that did not see this as news, did not defend their jobs and colleagues and engaged in self-censorship.”

The Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has also documented that 264 journalists are now in jails as of July 18, most in pre-trial detention languishing in notorious Turkish prisons without even a conviction. Of those in Turkish prisons, 240 are arrested pending trial, only 24 journalists remain convicted and serving time in Turkish prisons. An outstanding detention warrants remain for 109 journalists who live in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the movement, the government also closed down more than 180 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt. (SCF with July 24, 2017

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