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Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper goes on trial

July 24, 2017

Employees of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet are being tried on charges including the alleged support of "terrorist organizations." The case is seen as a indicator of the state of the Turkish justice system.

Reporter ohne Grenzen - Cumhuriyet
Image: picture alliance/dpa/S.Suna

The Cumhuriyet journalists may be looking at very long jail sentences. The defendants, whose trial began on Monday, could get between seven-and-a-half and 43 years in prison. What exactly they are charged with, however, remains unclear.

The group includes some of the best known names in Turkish media, such as the Kadri Gursel, the paper's chief editor Murat Sabuncu, cartoonist Musa Kart, and investigative reporter Ahmet Sik.

According to the prosecutors, the 19 reporters are on trial for "aiding an armed terrorist group without being mebers of it." Two of these groups are named: the movement around the preacher Fethullah Gulen, and the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK. Critics slammed the accusations as vague.

"Kadri Gursel […] is one of the country's leading writers and opinion-formers," DW's Dorian Jones from said on Monday Istanbul. "He wrote a column for a very prominent newspaper and was ousted because of a tweet the president (Erdogan) didn't like."

Cumhuriyet 2016 Protests
Crowds in Turkey show solidarity for Cumhuriyet in 2016Image: Cumhuriyet

"He is accused of not only supporting the Kurdish rebel group the PKK, which has kidnapped him two decades ago, but on top of that he is also accused of supporting the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is a person Kadri Gursel has written expansively about, exposing and criticizing for many years," Jones told DW News.

The first week of the group trial is likely to be taken up by prosecutors reading out the indictment and defense lawyers giving their opening statements. At the end of this segment, however, the judges will decide whether to release some of the defendants on bail. Twelve of the reporters are currently in jail, five have already been released from custody pending the outcome of the trial, and the last two, including Cumhuriyet former editor-in-chief Can Dundar, are being tried in absentia. Dundar is currently in Germany.

The case of Ahmet Sik gives some indication of the sort of thing the public prosecutor's office deems to be such an offense. Sik, an investigative journalist, was arrested at the end of December 2016. The public prosecutor referenced posts on his Twitter account as grounds for the arrest. Anadolu reported that the investigation was based on claims that Sik was "denigrating the Republic of Turkey, its judicial bodies, military and security organization" and "propagandizing for a terrorist organization" in his Twitter postings and in some articles he had published in the Cumhuriyet daily.

Sik went after Gulen at wrong time

What Ahmed Sik did was primarily to ask questions and highlight inconsistencies in government propaganda. For example, in some of his tweets he considered the case of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov. Karlov was shot on 19 November, 2016, by a former policeman with jihadi motives. The government says the gunman was a follower of the Gulen movement. In that case, Sik asked on Twitter, how did they explain the fact that the assassin was a police officer?

Sik also addressed the arrest of the actor, director and politician Sırrı Sureyya Onder, who represented the pro-Kurdish opposition HDP in the Turkish parliament. Together with former deputy prime minister of Turkey, Yalcin Akdogan, Onder published a statement proposing a possible solution for the Kurdish conflict. The member of parliament was then arrested and charged with supporting a terrorist organization. Sik's conclusion: "If the action which [Peoples' Democratic Party MP] Sırrı Sureyya Onder is being charged with is a crime, isn't there supposed to be a bunch of suspects, starting with those sitting in the [Presidential] Palace?"

Sik had already spent a year in prison in 2011 and 2012. Back then, his crime was to criticize the Gulen movement's influence within the apparatus of state – precisely what Erdogan is doing today. The only difference is that, at that time, Erdogan and Gulen were still the best of friends.

Read more: Gulen, the man behind the myth

Government lies exposed

Deutschland lit.Cologne Veranstaltung Verfolgung in der Türkei
Former Cumhuriyet editor, Can DundarImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Galuschka

In the current proceedings, those accused include the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, Murat Sabuncu, as well as his predecessor Can Dundar, who currently lives in exile in Germany. The indictment says that Cumhuriyet's line "changed radically" after Dundar took over the editorship. Since then, it says, the paper has supported the aims of "terrorist organizations."


Read more: Can Dundar's bilingual news platform blocked in Turkey

Dundar has already been sentenced in an earlier trial to five years and ten months in prison. This sentence has not yet been finalized. Dundar and the paper's chief correspondent, Erdem Gul, were accused of publishing state secrets.

In May 2015 Cumhuriyet published photos of several trucks being searched as they made their way from Turkey to Syria. Hidden in the vehicles, behind humanitarian relief supplies, was military equipment, presumably for delivery to the Syrian opposition. The Turkish government had previously denied that the convoy was transporting weapons: The photos proved the opposite. "These are the weapons Erdogan claims do not exist," said the Cumhuriyet headline that accompanied the photos.

The wives of the imprisoned Turkish journalists

'Fearless journalism'

The trial of Dundar and Gul was criticized heavily around the world. "Surely even the greatest cynic would find it hard not to side with Can Dündar in this trial," Daniel Heinrich commented for DW. As he said, "Can Dundar and Erdem Gul fulfilled their duty as critical journalists: They shone a spotlight on the questionable role of the Turkish government in the Syria conflict."

Monday's trial has already attracted significant criticism even before its start. "The newspaper Cumhuriyet is symbolic of the courageous efforts of the few independent media outlets that remain in Turkey. A conviction would send a disastrous signal and would be a disgrace for the Turkish justice system," said Christian Mihr, the director of Reporters Without Borders in Germany. Out of 180 countries surveyed for his organization's annual press freedom ranking, Turkey is currently number 151.

In September 2016, Cumhuriyet was honored with the so-called "Alternative Nobel Prize," or Right Livelihood Award. This foundation announced that Cumhuriyet was receiving the prize "for their fearless investigative journalism and commitment to freedom of expression in the face of oppression, censorship, imprisonment and death threats." The Right Livelihood Award Foundation has criticized the current arrests as proof "that the regime will not hesitate to suppress any dissenting voices."

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East