(CN) – The same day Reporters Without Borders slammed Turkey’s anti-press “witch hunt,” an Istanbul court sentenced more than a dozen celebrated reporters from the country’s oldest serious newspaper to heavy jail terms.
The Turkish journalists condemned on Wednesday to spend between 2.5 to 7.5 years behind bars on terrorism charges report for Cumhuriyet, the country’s oldest serious newspaper founded by a confidant of national hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The recipient of a Right Livelihood Award, known as the “Alternative Nobel,” Cumhuriyet’s newsroom has been decimated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-press clampdown.
His prosecutors accused 18 staffers – including former editor-in-chief Can Dundar, celebrated columnist Kadri Gursel and investigative reporter Ahmet Sik – of ties to organizations that Turkey considers terrorist groups.
With Dundar now living in exile in Germany, Gursel received a 2.5-year sentence that may amount to time served, but Sik will return to prison for 7.5 years with other reporters serving heavy sentences.
Having been locked up for his reporting in the past, Sik remained defiant on his return trip to prison.
“No need to despair,” Sik tweeted, as translated by Turkish outlet Dokuz8Haber. “No dictatorship in history has ever won the fight for silencing the rightful ones. We will win.”
Sik’s conviction was especially ironic, as the investigative journalist was accused of spreading the propaganda of Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric whom Sik harshly criticized in his most well-known book, “The Imam’s Army.”
At the time, Gulen had been aligned with Erdogan’s government, which jailed Sik before for criticizing the cleric. Erdogan now considers Gulen his government’s top enemy and claims that Sik aided Gulen, whose movement Sik spent years condemning.
The International Press Institute, a Vienna-based media freedom watchdog, denounced Turkey for yet again conflating journalism with terrorism.
“Journalism is not a crime and scrutinizing the powerful is not an act of terrorism but one of public service,” its executive director Barbara Trionfi said in a statement. “We are deeply disappointed that Turkey’s justice system has failed to protect journalists from violations of their fundamental rights.”
Gursel, who serves as one of the institute’s executive board members, was slapped with contradictory charges of aiding diametrically opposed groups: Gulen’s Islamic sect and the Kurdistan Workers Party, a decidedly secular band of militants.
Releasing its annual press freedom index on Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders blasted the Erdogan government’s penchant for locking up dissenting voices.
“Turkey is again the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists, with members of the press spending more than a year in prison before trial and long jail sentences becoming the new norm—in some cases, journalists are sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of a pardon,” the Paris-based press freedom group noted. “Detained journalists and closed media outlets are denied any effective legal recourse. The rule of law is a fading memory under the now all-powerful president.”
Erdogan’s state of emergency is still in force following a 2016 coup attempt, and the Turkish president fast-tracked new elections for this coming June. One of the leading opposition parties announced Wednesday that their candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, will run for president from prison.