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Concern about democracy and press freedom in Turkey

Trials against reporters and Turkish soccer fans follow on the heels of a crackdown this weekend on Turkish media critical of President Erdogan. Observers are worried about where the state is headed.

Almost exactly one year after corruption charges against the Turkish government were made public on December 17, 2013, critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan face trial on Tuesday.

35 members of the Besiktas football team's fan club, known as the Carsi, are accused of planning an armed rebellion and inciting protests against the Erdogan government. The prosecution is seeking life sentences.

In a separate trial that starts on Wednesday in Istanbul, four journalists face charges of having leaked state secrets. The prosecution is seeking up to ten years in prison for Cumhuriyet's Ibrahim Yildiz and Aykut Kücükkaya, and Mustafa Ilker Yücel and Murat Simsek of the Aydinlik daily.

Turkey protesters in Ankara street's. (Photo: AP Photo / Burhan Ozbilici)

The Carsi fan club was a force in anti-government protests

Ignoring a news embargo in the spring, both newspapers had reported details from a confidential, wiretapped meeting among senior government officials about a possible Turkish military intervention in Syria.

A waste of time

On Sunday, Turkish police raided media outlets, detaining Ekrem Dumanli, the editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily newspaper, and several others. Zaman is close to the movement of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is regarded as an Erdogan opponent.

Dumanli and the other detainees, the Carsi supporters and the four journalists facing trial this week all have one thing in common: they offended the government.

President Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu regard the Gezi Park unrest as well as the publication of bugged phone calls made by members of the government as acts targeted at weakening or even toppling the government.

Gülen and his supporters have denied any ambition to overthrow Turkey's leadership.

"The prosecution is currently translating this version of events into penal law," says Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Turkey researcher with Human Rights Watch.

The Carsi trial in particular is "grotesque and a waste of time," she told DW.

Prosecutors base their charges on statements and the defendants' wiretapped phone conversations. A march to Erdogan's Istanbul office - he was still Prime Minister at the time - is regarded as proof of a coup.

Evidence is scandalously scanty, Sinclair-Webb says. "The charges should be dismissed on day one of the trial."

Pressure on the media

In the case against the four reporters, the prosecution argues press freedom doesn't cover the publication of confidential ministerial talks.

The defense counters that details of the bugged talks were already being circulated on the Internet, and thus available to the whole world, before the journalists on trial made them public.

Zaman journalist holds a placard at the headquarters of Zaman daily newspaper. (Photo: REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

Staff members after the raid of the Zaman newspaper

Can Güleryüzlü, a member of the board with the Turkish CGD Journalists Association, accuses the government of stepping up pressure on the media.

News is increasingly embargoed in an effort to prevent reports about unpleasant issues, Güleryüzlü told DW. Today, he adds, the question is whether Turkey is still a state of constitutional legality where the right to personal freedom applies.

Turkey's shortcomings

In its most recent progress evaluation report, the EU points out deficits in Turkey's freedom of the press and its fight against corruption. The European Union also sharply criticized the mass arrest of dozens of members of the press on Sunday.

Brussels was critical of how Ankara handled last year's Gezi Park protests, so the upcoming Carsi trial and proceedings against the four reporters may well rekindle that criticism. Kati Piri, the European Parliament's new rapporteur on Turkey, voiced concerns last week over a planned new security bill that critics claim would give the state more power.

Turkey has been recognized as a candidate for full EU membership since 1999, but has struggled to make progress in gaining this status. President Erdogan lashed out at the bloc on Monday after its criticism of Sunday's police raids on media houses. "We have no concern about what the EU might say, whether the EU accepts us or not, we have no such concern. Please keep your wisdom to yourself," Erdogan said Monday.

Both Güleryüzlü and human rights activist Sinclair-Webb say the trials fuel fears of an "erosion" of Turkey's constitutional legality. Apparently, they say, the government has great influence on parts of the justice system. Turkey is already looking at an "appalling" development where press freedom is concerned, they say.

Following the raids, the spokesman for Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel said that it was "in Turkey's own interest to clear up any possible doubt over its commitment to basic democratic principles." Erdogan said that the raids have "nothing to do with" press freedom.

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