Staff of leading Turkish daily face trial in press freedom test
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A high profile trial of journalists and directors from Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s leading newspapers, opened at an Istanbul courthouse Monday. The case is viewed as a key test of press freedom under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The trial opened Monday at Istanbul’s main Çağlayan Justice Palace with the defendants reading out their identities, according to reporters inside the courtroom.
The 17 Cumhuriyet employees are facing charges of supporting “terrorist organisations,” which they deny. If found guilty, they face up to 43 years in jail.
The trial has attracted international attention with a number of independent observers attending Monday’s proceedings. A crowd of protesters gathered outside the courthouse early Monday, chanting, “Freedom for journalists” and releasing coloured balloons.
The group of senior Cumhuriyet executives and journalists were detained in October under a state of emergency implemented after the July 15, 2016 failed coup blamed on the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen.
The trial is widely viewed as a test case for press freedom in Turkey, which ranks 155th on the latest Reporters Without Borders (RSF) world press freedom index -- below Belarus and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A leading opposition daily, Cumhuriyet was launched in 1924 and is one of the oldest mainstream newspapers in Turkey.
The group of 17 staffers include the former editor-in-chief Can Dundar, who is currently in exile in Germany. In an interview with FRANCE 24 shortly after he was sentenced for an exposé on the government arming rebels in Syria, Dundar urged the international community to support press freedom in Turkey.
‘We have become jugglers’
The crackdown by Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) on the opposition media following the July 2016 coup attempt has seen more than 125 journalists arrested across Turkey, making it virtually impossible for independent journalists to work inside Turkey.
“The AKP government, or let's just say Erdogan, has decided to reduce Cumhuriyet to silence,” said columnist Aydin Engin, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
“We juggle with words. If we use this or that word, we know we can be prosecuted and punished by the court. But sometimes, using a slightly different word can avoid us getting in trouble. So, we have become jugglers,” Engin explained.
The list of defendants facing trial Monday includes a virtual who’s who of top Turkish journalists, including investigative reporter Ahmet Sik, best known for his 2011 book, “The Imam’s Army,” which exposed the Gulenist movement’s infiltration of the Turkish state.
While Erdogan has accused Gulen of masterminding the July 2016 failed coup, the Turkish cleric, who has lived in exile in rural Pennsylvania since 1999, vehemently denied the charges in an interview with FRANCE 24 earlier this month.
The other journalists on trial include the paper's editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and the respected cartoonist Musa Kart.
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