International organizations including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI) have reacted strongly against the ruling of a Turkish court that on Friday sentenced six former columnists and editors of the now-shuttered Zaman newspaper to jail terms of between eight-and-a-half and ten-and-a-half years, along with the acquittal of five others, calling for their immediate release.
The Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court has sentenced former Zaman journalists Şahin Alpay, Mustafa Ünal, İbrahim Karayeğen, Ahmet Turan Alkan, Mümtazer Türköne, Ali Bulaç to prison sentences ranging from eight years, nine months to 10 years, six months on charges of “membership in a terrorist organization.” İhsan Dağı, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, Nuriye Akman, Mehmet Özdemir and Lale Sarıibrahimoğlu were acquitted of all charges.
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir voiced strong disapproval of today’s court decision to imprison the Zaman journalists.
“Today’s sentences confirm the critical state of press freedom in Turkey. Terrorism charges for articles and news are unacceptable. Today’s sentences against Şahin Alpay and his colleagues are unjustified and exceptionally severe. I recall that the European Court of Human Rights emphasized that freedom of expression also applies to views that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population,” said Désir.
“I call on Turkey to release the arrested journalists and hope that this decision will be reversed on appeal. I have been following the Zaman trial from the very beginning. It highlights once again the urgent need to reform Turkey’s criminal legislation which allows for numerous ways to silence critical journalists” he added.
The Zaman daily, which was Turkey’s best-selling newspaper, was closed down along with dozens of other media outlets due to their links to the Gülen movement, which is accused by Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of masterminding a coup attempt in July 2016.
“Yet again, journalists have received criminal convictions under anti-terror laws with nothing more than their critical writings presented as evidence. These absurd convictions have sent a further shock through Turkey’s already devastated media landscape. They must be overturned immediately,” said Fotis Filippou, Amnesty International’s campaign director for Europe in reaction to the ruling.
“Whilst all were acquitted of ‘attempting to overthrow the constitutional order’ and five were acquitted of all charges, the conviction of six journalists on terrorism charges without a shred of credible evidence against them shows that the systematic attempt to silence the media in Turkey continues.”
Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW Turkey director, also reacted the İstanbul court ruling on Twitter: “Trial verdict against former Zaman journos & columnists convicted 6 of terrorism membership in another perversion of justice.”
“More retaliation against govt critics contributes nothing to legitimate efforts at securing accountability for the violent 2016 coup,” underlined Sinclair-Webb.
RSF, which attended the sentencing hearing, condemned the outcome as a political verdict.
“This verdict gives an official blessing, once more, to the criminalization of journalism in Turkey,” said RSF representative Erol Önderoğlu, who attended the hearing.
“Throughout this Kafkaesque trial, criticizing the government and covering events of public interest have been treated as a form of terrorism. Who will repair the harm done to those who have spent long months in preliminary detention? We demand acquittal on appeal for all the defendants and an end to these political trials.”
IPI’s Turkey Advocacy Coordinator Caroline Stockford also condemned the jail sentences.
“Whilst we welcome the acquittal of five of the Zaman defendants, it should be noted that they were subjected to a lengthy trial and detentions despite the indictments comprising mostly journalistic ‘evidence’ against them, published before the attempted coup of 2016,” she said.
“The prosecutor’s indictment contained basic errors and was lacking in legal credibility. Many of the defendants such as Orhan Kemal Cengiz and Lâlezar Sarıibrahimoğlu had merely a few lines referring to them. The appeals process for the six defendants who were sentenced will be lengthy. It is clearly evident that the rule of law is not being applied in Turkey.”
Turkish authorities should drop all charges against the six journalists who worked for the now-shuttered Zaman daily newspaper, the Committee to Protect Journalists said.
“Today’s verdicts against the Zaman journalists are another example of Turkish authorities’ vindictive policy against critical media,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia research associate Gulnoza Said.
“We call on Turkey to drop the charges and stop the systematic use of anti-terror laws to prosecute journalists.”
In its statement RSF also summarized the court cases against Zaman journalists:
“The charges against the columnists stem essentially from their work for Zaman, the country’s highest-circulation daily before it was placed under state control, and then shuttered by decree in 2016. Its editorial policy had favoured the Gülen movement, a former government ally that was then accused of having orchestrated the coup attempt of July 2016. That was enough to accuse anyone who worked for Zaman of ‘membership in a terrorist organization’ or of ‘attempting to overthrow the government and constitutional order.’ These charges were filed without slightest evidence of individual participation in violent acts or attempts to justify them. In the logic of the charges, if the columnists covered scandals in which the government was implicated, or criticized its drift toward authoritarianism, the goal was to create a ‘perception’ favouring a coup.”
Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.
Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 240 journalists and media workers were in jail as of July 7, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 179 were under arrest pending trial while only 61 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 143 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 some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. (SCF with turkishminute.com)