Turkish court sends journalists to prison as Amnesty condemns ‘climate of fear’ under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
The journalists were arrested in the months following an attempted coup in 2016 that the authorities blamed on a Turkish cleric living in exile in the United States
A Turkish court on Wednesday handed down prison sentences to a group of journalists and employees working for a Turkish opposition newspaper on terrorism-related charges, in a case that has focused attention on the erosion of press freedoms under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Fourteen of the journalists, who work for Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers, were given sentences of up to seven-and-a-half years. The defendants have been released from custody, pending an appeal. Three other employees were acquitted.
On Thursday, Amnesty International accused the Turkish government of creating a “chilling climate of fear” across society and curtailing the work of human rights activists since a failed 2016 coup.
In a report titled “Weathering the storm: Defending human rights in Turkey’s climate of fear”, the rights group said freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial have been “decimated” under the state of emergency introduced five days after the attempted putsch.
“Under the cloak of the state of emergency, Turkish authorities have deliberately and methodically set about dismantling civil society, locking up human rights defenders, shutting down organisations and creating a suffocating climate of fear,” Amnesty’s Europe director, Gauri van Gulik, said in a statement.
More than 1,300 associations and foundations have been shut down under the measures. In addition, more than 140,000 public sector employees have been sacked or suspended including judges over alleged links to putschists or Kurdish militants.
The journalists were arrested in the months following the attempted coup that the authorities blamed on Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in the United States. Thousands of people who were accused of aiding the coup plotters were arrested or dismissed from government jobs. However, the authorities also targeted opposition politicians, journalists and dissidents who played no part in the coup, human rights advocates said. Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup attempt.
Lawyers for the Cumhuriyet staff members, who were charged with aiding terrorist organisations, have called the accusations baseless and said they stemmed from the newspaper’s frequent opposition to Erdogan’s government. The paper, which is associated with Turkey’s mainstream opposition, was frequently critical of Gulen and his followers.
Press advocates said the prosecution of the newspaper’s employees was part of a broader attack by Turkish authorities on the news media that included the closure of independent news outlets, the arrest of journalists and the consolidation of media outlets under government-friendly owners.
Can Atalay, a lawyer for Ahmet Sik, one of the journalists on trial, said the harsh sentences were a surprise, if only because they exceeded the prison terms handed down in other cases to actual members of Gulen’s movement.
Those sentenced on Wednesday included the paper’s cartoonist, Musa Kart, and Aydin Engin, a 78-year-old columnist.
“This part is incomprehensible,” Atalay said, in a videotaped interview that was published on the Cumhuriyet website. “This is not a state of law.”
The sentences could have a chilling effect on the news media at a critical moment, with Turkey heading toward elections in late June that could give Erdogan enhanced powers.
“Doing journalism in Turkey in these circumstances – just to make the news, just to arrange a front page, just to make a headline – will be much more difficult than yesterday,” Atalay said.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse