24th Mar 2018

Journalists on trial highlight Turkey crackdown

  • The arrests of Cumhuriyet’s staff were part of nationwide security operations that followed the coup attempt in July last year. (Photo: Reuters)

Dozens filled a cramped Istanbul courtroom on Monday (25 July) to watch journalists from Turkey’s leading opposition newspaper stand trial in a case that critics say is one of the most important episodes in the pro-Islamic Turkish government’s systematic campaign to silence dissent.

Seventeen journalists and administrative employees of the daily Cumhuriyet are accused of aiding and abetting terror organisations, which the defendants claimed their paper stringently criticised in the past.

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Some of those on trial face up to 43 years in prison.

“The government says that the defendants are not on trial because of journalistic activities, yet all the evidence they put forth are news articles,” said Fikret Ilkiz, one of the attorneys representing the Cumhuriyet newspaper.

“This is one of the most typical cases that aim to intimidate journalistic opponents,” Ilkiz added.

The arrests of the newspaper’s staff were part of nationwide security operations that followed the coup attempt in July last year, and rounded up more than 50,000 people accused of having links with an Islamic movement headed by Fethullah Gulen, a muslim cleric in self-imposed exile in the US, according to the interior ministry's figures.

Gulen movement

The government, which once enjoyed a partially-veiled alliance with Gulen, labelled his movement (also called Feto) as the terror organisation behind the coup attempt against president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They now demand Gulen's extradition from the US.

Along with the arrests, the purging of more than 111,240 civil servants via 26 executive decrees in a year raised red flags among human rights groups and international organisations like the EU, which voiced concerns over the president’s growing autocratic tendencies and the arbitrary nature of government actions against dissidents.

"This coup attempt must be investigated and those responsible should be brought to justice but in fair justice and rule of law,” said Rebecca Harms, a member of the European Parliament and the Greens/European Free Alliance group.

“However, since the purges, I see that this has nothing to do with rule of law … There is no independent investigation, but revenge on competitors and critiques.”

Some purges, critics claim, showcase the flimsy nature of the terror allegations and underline the government's agenda to eliminate opposition from all walks of life, even the state theatre.

“I was suspended from the Istanbul public theatre company by an executive decree, without any explanation,” said Kemal Kocaturk, an actor who returned to his position only to be permanently laid off soon after.

“The reason was clearly my critical stance against the government, publicly exposed in my Twitter feed, as there was no way they could associate me with bigots like Feto.”

Still, he considered himself more fortunate than others who were purged with executive decrees under an ongoing state of emergency - such as Funda Basaran, a communications professor at Ankara University.

Basaran was one of the 1,128 academics who signed a peace declaration in January 2016, calling for an unarmed solution to the conflict with Kurdish rebels that has claimed more than 40,000 lives since 1984.

The government took the call as open support for terrorism, instigated investigations into the signatories and, after the coup attempt, dismissed more than 380 within the group through several executive decrees.

“If we hadn’t signed the declaration, we’d still be subjected to executive decrees because we represent resistance and opposition within the universities,” said Basaran.

“The government wants to eliminate any opposition or institution that produces knowledge, encourages free thinking and supports reforms for an enlightened society.”

And they seem to have succeeded, she added.

“Everyone with a potential to be an opponent is destroyed with these executive decrees,” said the young academic. “We are not allowed to work anywhere or get passports to work outside Turkey, so we’re ‘living civil casualties’.”

Purged civil service

By July this year, purged civil servants represented 3.5 percent of the total public workforce, Numan Kurtulmus, the government spokesperson, stated early this month, adding that efforts were underway also to financially cripple the organisation.

So far, the state seized 966 companies with alleged links to Feto and handed over their 4,888 properties to the treasury, the spokesperson said – a move that, experts say, might irk foreign investors in Turkey.

In Germany, foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel hinted that strong economic ties might get hurt given the unpredictable nature of president Erdogan, Reuters reported last week.

"We need our policies towards Turkey to go in a new direction … We can't continue as we have done," Gabriel reportedly said, implying mutual trade deals.

The German politician’s remarks came after six people, including Idil Eser, the Turkey director of Amnesty International and Peter Steudtner, a German emotional self-care trainer, were arrested last week on charges of aiding an armed terrorist organisation.

They were among a group of ten who were detained while holding a human rights-themed workshop in Buyukada, an island in Istanbul waters.

“Our business exchange office, which is an umbrella organisation for German businesses, has pointed out that they were uncertain about the independence of justice system in light of their future movements in Turkey,” said Arne Lietz, a German MEP, who spoke in Istanbul while attending the trial of Cumhuriyet journalists.

“Those who favour trade to be deepened with Turkey are in a position to reconsider their view if Erdogan steers the country towards authoritarianism as we see him do right now.”

The arrests caused international reactions at a time when Turkey has already been under the spotlight with at least 150 journalists in jail, according to several journalist rights’ groups.

President Erdogan, however, strongly opposes this figure and, in a rare interview to the BBC early this month, reiterated that there were only two journalists in jail unlike claimed.

For the wife of Ahmet Sik - a Cumhuriyet journalist who was arrested in 2011 after a critical book he wrote about Feto and now ironically charged with aiding and abetting Feto - the trial was a tough yet empowering experience.

“There are still people struggling for true journalism, democracy and rule of law,” said Yonca Sik, greeting friends during a brief break in the first hearing, which will last until Friday.

“After all we’re right and believe in ourselves so it’s the hope for a better future that we all represent.”

The human rights situation is expected to be on the agenda of a new meeting of the so-called EU-Turkey high level dialogue in Brussels on Tuesday, between Turkey's foreign and Europe ministers, Mevlut Cavusoglu and Omer Celik, and the EU's diplomacy chief, Federica Mogherini, and enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn.

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