By ZEYNEP BILGINSOY, Associated Press
ISTANBUL (AP) — A media advocacy group accused Turkey’s president of trying to silence the country’s main opposition newspaper and free press as the second hearing of a trial against staff members of the paper began Monday.
Christophe Deloire, the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, called the case against Turkey’s pro-secular Cumhuriyet newspaper “a mockery of justice.”
“Erdogan succeeded in suppressing pluralism and free press in this country,” he said, referring to “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “There are only a few remaining free media and we have to defend them.”
Deloire spoke to The Associated Press outside Silivri prison on the outskirts of Istanbul where five Cumhuriyet employees are being held in pre-trial detention. Among the jailed are editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and columnist Kadri Gursel who have been in prison for 316 days as well as investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, in prison for 255 days.
Prosecutors have charged 19 employees of the paper with allegedly “sponsoring terror organizations,” including Kurdish militants, a far-left group and the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who the government blames for a failed coup last year. Gulen denies any involvement.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said the defendants were facing various charges with jail sentences ranging from seven to 43 years in prison.
More than 50,000 people have been jailed in the aftermath of the bloody July 15, 2016 coup attempt for alleged links to Gulen and other terror groups. But critics say the crackdown has been widened to quash opposition voices, including journalists, activists and parliamentarians who have been put behind bars.
Cumhuriyet employees and supporters gathered Monday outside Silivri prison’s courthouse, holding the paper’s edition with the headline “We want justice.”
The newspaper’s Ankara representative Erdem Gul told the AP that Turkey “holds a record for imprisoned journalists,” with some 170 media workers behind bars.
“But despite everything, we will continue our journalism,” he said.
The government insists that none of them are in prison for their journalistic work, arguing that they are behind bars for various crimes, including terrorism.
Gul is on trial in a separate case, accused of espionage and aiding Gulen’s network, for a 2015 story alleging that Turkey’s intelligence service was smuggling arms to Syria. He accused the government of labeling all opposition as terrorists.
“It is journalism, freedom of thought and expression that are on trial,” Gul said.
Seven Cumhuriyet staff members, including cartoonist Musa Kart, were released after the first hearing in July. Two people are being tried in absentia.
Also on trial and in prison is Kemal Aydogdu, who is not related to the newspaper but is suspected of using a Twitter handle critical of the government. He is accused of being a “manager” in a terror group, according to Anadolu.