(CN) – In good news for Turkey’s beleaguered press, an Istanbul court freed two prominent journalists from the nation’s oldest up-market newspaper Cumhuriyet late on Friday.
One of their colleagues, however, will remain in jail for a term that has stretched nearly 500 days, and their former editor-in-chief may be slapped with an espionage charge.
Speaking of the favorable turn for two of the reporters, the Vienna-based International Press Institute said: “We are glad to hear about their release, but we remind Turkey that no journalist should be in jail for their work.”
Today’s ruling means that Cumhuriyet reporters Ahmet Sik and Murat Sabuncu will be released pending trial on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda.
Sik, a celebrated investigative journalist there, stands accused of amplifying a movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric whom he harshly criticized in his most well-known book “The Imam’s Army.”
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party had been allied with the Gulenist movement before 2013.
Since that year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labeled the cleric and his followers terrorists and blamed them for multiple coup attempts. Gulen denies having any role in the coup attempts and maintains his group is a peaceful and moderate religious movement.
Sik previously went to prison for his critical reporting on Gulen’s movement, before now being charged with helping to spread their word.
Allegations against other charged journalists have been just as contradictory.
Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gursel was accused of simultaneously aiding Gulen, an Islamic sect, and the Kurdistan Workers Party, a decidedly secular group. The organizations share little in common apart from being branded terrorist organizations.
Released from prison last year, Gursel’s nearly yearlong stint beyond bars has not made his reporting any less outspoken. His latest column told Turkey’s rulers: “You can achieve nothing by keeping our colleagues in jail.”
Though only a handful of reporters were subject to today’s ruling, Cumhuriyet has 17 journalists in total facing charges.
PEN International, the International Press Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other freedom of expression groups around the world have been closely monitoring their cases.
Rights groups have blasted the terrorism and espionage charges as a pretext to silence critical journalists working for a newspaper hallowed in Turkish media history. Cumhuriyet was founded by a confidant of Turkey’s national hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
“This trial is a chilling illustration of the steep deterioration of freedom of expression and the rule of law in Turkey since the attempted coup of July 2016,” Amnesty International’s Europe director Gauri van Gulik said in a statement before today’s decision.
Earlier in the day, Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dundar’s case took a surprising turn for the worse.
As reported by Ahval, an independent news site banned in Turkey, the country’s Supreme Court voided Dundar’s five-year jail term for publishing photographs of Turkish intelligence supplying truckloads of weapons to Syrian rebels.
“Here are the weapons Erdogan said did not exist,” Dundar wrote in a May 2015 headline, according to Ahval.
Previously charged with revealing secret documents, Turkey’s Supreme Court recommended a far graver crime that carries a possible sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison.
“Real ‘Espionage’ is the secret transfer of arms to a foreign country,” Dundar tweeted in reaction to the news. “Those who report on it are journalists.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists recently noted that Turkey jails more reporters than any other nation in the world.