Turkey’s bleak media scene: Arrests, closures and closed trials

In June 2015, Turkish journalist Can Dundar published photographs and posted a video on his newspaper’s website showing that the government had been secretly trucking arms to Syrian rebels and disguising the shipments as humanitarian aid deliveries.

The story was a major embarrassment for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had repeatedly denied earlier reports of weapons shipments. “Here are the weapons that Erdogan says were not,” read the headline in Cumhuriyet, the 50,000-circulation newspaper Dundar had just taken over as editor-in-chief.

Vowing that Dundar would “pay a high price” and “I won’t let him go,” Erdogan filed a personal criminal complaint against him. In May, Dundar and a colleague were convicted of revealing state secrets and sentenced to five years in prison.

The state wasn’t finished with them. For the last five months, they have been on trial again, this time on charges of “aiding and abetting” the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a retired Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and stands accused by the Turkish government of being behind July’s failed coup. (The cleric denies any involvement.)

A verdict was widely anticipated in the Dundar case this week, but instead a three-judge panel recessed until late April — a typical delay in a country mired in a massive crackdown that includes arrests and trials of journalists and shuttering of news organizations.

Turkey has become the world’s leading jailer of journalists as Erdogan works to strengthen his hold on power, according to international monitors.

Reporters Without Borders, the free press group based in Paris, counts 130 journalists and other media employees behind bars. Nils Muiznieks, the European commissioner for human rights, puts the number at 151.

Even before the failed coup, direct government interference with media freedoms, including heavy pressure on independent publishers to sell their companies to businessmen reliant on state contracts, “had already reached an alarming level,” Muiznieks said in a report last month.

But under the state of emergency that Erdogan declared after the coup attempt, there’s been an “unprecedented infringement of media freedom,” and a “clear disavowal” of rule of law and due process, the report said.

Operating by decree, the Turkish government has shut down 160 news organizations since July, including 45 newspapers, 32 radio stations, 30 television channels and 19 magazines, according to the Human Rights Joint Platform, a Turkish monitoring group. A majority were affiliated with the Gulen movement, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Their property and assets were to be turned over to the state, while debts were to remain in the hands of the dispossessed owners.

The government has also exercised its state-of-emergency powers to go after media that had nothing to do with the coup — chiefly Kurdish outlets and the handful of independent news organizations.

New media curbs emerge almost daily as courts hand down sentences, prosecutors open more criminal investigations and judges conduct seemingly endless proceedings.

Besides the Dundar case, there were at least four other proceedings against news media this week that reflect the broad crackdown.

  • Deniz Yucel, a Turkish German reporter for the German daily Die Welt was detained for 14 days before being formally arrested in Istanbul on Monday on charges of “propaganda in support of a terrorist organization” and “inciting the public to violence.” Still jailed, he can in theory be held in investigative confinement for up to five years. The case has provoked a public uproar in Germany.
  • Hasan Cemal, a former editor of Cumhuriyet, on Wednesday received an 11-month suspended sentence from an Ankara court for “insulting the President.”
  • Istanbul court proceedings continued Wednesday against media tycoon Aydin Dogan — who owns Hurriyet, the country’s best-selling newspaper, with a circulation of about 350,000 — and 46 other defendants in connection with alleged fuel smuggling and tax evasion between 2001 and 2008.
  • Prosecutors Monday began an investigation of Hurriyet after it reported tensions between the Turkish armed forces and the government. Under enormous government pressure, Hurriyet replaced its top editor Wednesday.

The assault on the media has had a chilling effect on public debate in the run-up to a national referendum next month on a series of constitutional amendments that would strengthen Erdogan’s hold on power.

Muiznieks, whose commission is part of the Council of Europe, which includes Turkey, called for a “complete overhaul” of the Turkish criminal code, which currently allows for charges including aiding and abetting a criminal organization without being a member, insulting the president of the republic and insulting the Turkish nation, the republic, organs and institutions of the state.

He also called on prosecutors and courts to stop using pretrial detention and other criminal procedures to punish and discourage the exercise of freedom of expression. But he noted that the independence of the judiciary, already in question, could be diminished significantly if voters approve the new amendments April 16.

Dundar and his colleague Erdem Gul, the Ankara bureau chief of Cumhuriyet, are free while they appeal their convictions.

Gul attended the hearing Wednesday in the new case, but Dundar, who now lives in Germany, is being tried in absentia. Enis Berberoglu, an opposition member of parliament, is being tried with them.

The proceedings are closed to the public at the behest of the MIT National Intelligence Agency, despite assurances from defense lawyers that no state secrets would be discussed.

Once the case concludes, the government still might not be through with Dundar.

The state prosecutor has said he plans to try Dundar a third time, alongside 10 other defendants from Cumhuriyet accused of providing support to two different, opposing groups — Kurdish separatists fighting the Turkish government, and the Gulen movement.

In his report, Muiznieks pointed to the “incongruity” of charging journalists with carrying out propaganda for both groups, with no material evidence provided to establish the link between the suspects and these organizations.

In the current circumstance, he wrote, “The very essence of media freedom is negated.”

Gutman is a special correspondent.

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