As the trial of 44 journalists accused of being members of a Kurdish guerrilla group gets under way in Turkey, it has revived the debate on press and political freedoms.
The trial of 44 pro-Kurdish journalists charged with belonging to an armed rebellion has brought the issue of press and political freedoms in Turkey into the spotlight.
The journalists have been accused of belonging to the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), called the urban wing of the PKK by the Turkish state, a guerilla group which has been fighting for an autonomous Kurdistan for nearly 30 years. Turkey considers the party a terrorist group, as do the United States and the European Union.
The trial, Turkey's largest ever case involving the media, began Monday (10.09.2012) with prosecutors calling for prison terms ranging from seven to 20 years. Thirty-six of the 44 defendants have been in jail since December, waiting for the trial to start.
According to the Solidarity Platform for Arrested Journalists, a further 46 imprisoned journalists are still awaiting trial. Monday's trial is the latest in a series of court hearings in which dozens of people, including lawyers and politicians, have faced similar charges.
Thousands of pro-Kurdish politicians, journalists and academics, accused of having links with the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), have been jailed in the last three years.
Press freedom under pressure
"Unfortunately, freedom of the press is under significant pressure in Turkey," said Oktay Eksi, former president of the Turkish Press Council and a member of the opposition Republican People's Party CHP. "There are more than 100 journalists in jail."
Eksi said the imprisoned journalists have been charged with being terrorists, though they have not yet been proven to be members of the KCK.
"All the accused are working for the Kurdish media. Therefore, freedom of expression is one of the main concerns," said Antonia von der Behrens, a German attorney appointed by Reporters Without Borders (RWB) to represent one of the accused journalists, Huseyin Deniz.
"I [believe] that the trial will not be fair. In my opinion, the defendants are there not for being members of a terrorist organization, but for writing about Kurdish matters," she said.
"The clampdown on the Kurdish press [...] raises major concerns about the treatment of minorities and minority opinion," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW). "Even when those views are offensive, they must be protected."
Thirty years of conflict
Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's population of 74 million, are the country's largest ethnic minority. Fighting has escalated since June 2011, with the International Crisis Group reporting that at least 800 people, including 85 civilians, have been killed in the violence. More than 40,000 people, mainly Kurds, have died since the PKK began its campaign in 1984.
"Turkey has been confronting terrorism for nearly 30 years," said Deniz Ergurel, general secretary of Media Association, a Turkish non-profit organization.
Journalists demonstrated in Istabul against the threats to press freedom
"Journalists who write about these issues face many problems. Even when a person only has a distant link to terrorism - such as these journalists who write about it - the government can be very tough on them in order to protect the rest of society."
But, he stresses, the fact that these journalists have reported on Kurdish issues and terrorism in Turkey does not mean that they have committed a crime. ''All ideas should be expressed freely. This is the basis of a democratic society," said Ergurel.
Turkish media associations have banded together in an unprecedented effort to achieve a positive outcome in the trial of the imprisoned journalists.
''In August 2010, 13 associations gathered together and decided to form the Freedom for Journalists Platform," said Eksi, adding that the number of associations eventually climbed to 94. Since then, he said, the platform has been very active in protecting the rights of journalists, and he believes their efforts will not be in vain.
''When ethics are being violated, I think professional associations should handle it between themselves," said Ergurel. "This should not be a legal matter, because you cannot create special laws for those cases. It's very hard to establish media ethics or press freedom standards with laws.''