Turkish journalists face jail for describing Brunson case as ‘hostage diplomacy’

Turkish prosecutors have launched legal proceedings against two journalists for calling a terrorism case involving American pastor Andrew Brunson “failing hostage diplomacy,” as intense US pressure forced the country’s judiciary to free Brunson on Friday after two years of detention despite a conviction and a three year, one month sentence.

Reporters Alican Uludağ and Duygu Güvenç, whose news stories came to the attention of the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Bureau of Media Crimes, work for the Cumhuriyet daily. The bureau accused the journalists of insulting “the Turkish nation, Turkish judiciary, the Republic of Turkey and the Parliament” in three news stories they wrote, under Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code that could land them in jail for up to two years.

The stories they wrote in July were titled “US-adjusted justice,” “Is it the judiciary or the government behind detentions and releases?” and “As hostage diplomacy collapses.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself has branded Brunson “a terrorist and spy” for allegedly supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to create a Kurdish state, trying to convert Kurds to Christianity and cooperating with alleged members of the Gülen movement.

In their reports the journalists made the argument that the judiciary was not independent and was taking orders from President Erdoğan’s administration. They also wrote that Ankara was trying to mend its broken ties with the West by succumbing to pressure from Washington and the European Union to release Westerners held as “hostages” in Turkish prisons without repairing the justice system.

During an interrogation before Brunson was released, Güven and Uludag told prosecutors they exercised their constitutional right to free expression, according to a report by Cumhuriyet.

Erdoğan had suggested freeing Brunson in exchange for US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen. “Give us the pastor, they say. Well, you, too, have a pastor [Gülen]. Give him to us,” Erdoğan said in September 2017. “Then, we will give yours [Brunson] back.”

Several months later, in January 2018, he complained that the US was still refusing to extradite Gülen. “America is busy coming up with excuses. They are not giving us the terrorist. Then, you [the US] cannot take any terrorist from us. You will not get this terrorist [Brunson] as long as this poor man is alive,” he said, using an expression of modesty Turks say when referring to themselves.

A hearing for reporters Uludağ and Güvenç was scheduled for Dec. 20 after the Justice Ministry gave the green light to prosecutors to go ahead with legal proceedings.

Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül along with the Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu came under US sanctions in August for their role in Brunson’s detention days after US Vice President Mike Pence vowed to punish the Erdoğan regime.

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 237 journalists and media workers were in jail as of October 7, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 169 were under arrest pending trial while only 68 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 148 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.

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