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Trial in Turkey

Reyhan Baysan, Selcuk Oktay / cmk
September 14, 2012

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.

Istanbul - Schweigemarsch anlässlich der Ermordung des Journalisten Dink am 19.01.2007 Protesters gather in front of the Agos newspaper office during a demonstration to mark the fifth anniversary of the killing of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink in Istanbul January 19, 2012. A man was sentenced to life in prison in Turkey on Tuesday for the 2007 killing of prominent journalist Dink in a verdict that drew criticism from rights groups for failing to explore alleged complicity of state officials. Editor of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos and Turkey's best known Armenian voice abroad, Dink was shot in broad daylight in a busy Istanbul street as he left his office. Dink had angered Turkish nationalists with articles on Armenian identity and references to a Turkish "genocide" of Christian Armenians in 1915 - which the Turkish state strenuously denies. The case was seen as a test for democracy and human rights in European Union candidate Turkey. The placards in Turkish and Armenian read, " We are all Hrant. We are all Armenians". REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MEDIA TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

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.

In this Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012 photo, protesters stage a rally as thousands of Turks demonstrate to condemn terrorism in Ankara, Turkey. A Turkish official said Kurdish rebels have attacked security posts in the town of Beytussebap, Turkey, near the border with Iraq late Sunday, Sept. 2, killing nine security personnel. There has been a surge in rebel attacks in recent months. The banner reads: "We don't want The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) at the parliament." (Foto:AP/dapd)
Kurds have often protested against repression in TurkeyImage: dapd

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.

Opferfamilien versammeln sich vor dem Gericht in Diyarbakir (Süd-Ost Türkei) im März 2012, vor dem Prozeß eines ehemaligen Polizeibeamten und sechs weiteren Personen. Ihnen wird vorgeworfen, für 20 Morde und Entführungen zwischen 1993 und 1995 im Süd-Osten der Türkei verantwortlich zu sein. Copyright: 2012 Emma Sinclair-Webb/Human Rights Watch März 2012, Diyarbakir, Türkei
14991986Image: 2012 Emma Sinclair-Webb/Human Rights Watch

"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 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."

In this Thursday, April 14, 2011 photo, journalists march to protest against the threats to media rights in Istanbul, Turkey. The arrests last month of investigative journalist Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, an award-winning reporter for Milliyet newspaper, fed growing concerns about threats to press freedom in Turkey, a democracy with a mostly Muslim population that seeks membership in the European Union. The banner reads: "We will touch even if we get burned." (Foto:AP/dapd)
Journalists demonstrated in Istabul against the threats to press freedomImage: dapd

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.

Active struggle

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.''

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