Trial of 17 staff from anti-Erdogan daily kicks off in Istanbul as activists call for press freedom

It started with defendants reading out their identities inside a court packed with ­supporters

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 July, 2017, 7:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 July, 2017, 9:45pm

The trial has begun for directors and journalists from one of Turkey’s most respected opposition newspapers, after they spent more than eight months behind bars in a case which has raised alarm about press freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The suspects were detained from October last year under the state of emergency introduced after the July 15, 2016 failed coup Ankara blames on US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen.

On trial at the palace of justice in Istanbul are 17 staff from the newspaper, including writers, cartoonists and executives.s

The trial began on Monday with defendants reading out their identities inside a court crammed with ­supporters.

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Earlier, supporters released dozens of balloons outside the court and chanted: “Don’t be ­silenced! A free media is a right!”

Some of the defendants face 43-year jail terms if convicted.

The opposition fears the state of emergency has been used to silence critics of the government and the trial is seen as a test for press freedom under Erdogan.

Turkey ranks 155th on the ­latest Reporters Without Borders (RSF) world press freedom index, below Belarus and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the P24 press freedom group, there are 166 journalists in jail in Turkey, most arrested under the state of emergency.

In an extraordinary coincidence, Monday’s trial opened on Turkey’s annual day of the press, which marks the end of censorship in the Ottoman Empire.

Cumhuriyet (Republic), which was set up in 1924 and is Turkey’s oldest mainstream national title, has been a thorn in the side of ­Erdogan in recent years.

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It is one of the few opposition voices in the press, which is dominated by pro-government media.

In court are some of the best known names in Turkish journalism including columnist Kadri Gursel, the paper’s editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and the respected cartoonist Musa Kart.

Also being tried in the case is the investigative journalist Ahmet Sik who in 2011 wrote an explosive book The Imam’s Army exposing the grip Gulen’s movement had on the Turkish state.

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Being tried in absentia is the paper’s former editor-in-chief Can Dundar, who was sentenced to nearly six years for a front-page story accusing the government of sending weapons to Syrian rebels.

Since their arrests, Cumhuriyet has continued publishing columns by the jailed journalists but with blank space instead of text.

“This is a case is about criminalising journalism. It is about punishing those who speak out and if it works ... then they will do it again and again,” Steven Ellis, director of advocacy at the ­International Press Institute said outside the court.