Seventeen executives and journalists from Turkish daily ‘Cumhuriyet’went on trial in Istanbul on July 24 charged with terror-related activities.
Eleven of the accused including the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, Ahmet Şık, Kadri Gürsel and cartoonist Musa Kart have been held in custody while the remainder were released pending their court appearance.
Cumhuriyet has continued publishing the columns of the jailed journalists since they were arrested but with a blank white space instead of text.
Columnist and editorial consultant, Gürsel was the first to make his defence, telling the court, “I am not here because I knowingly and willingly helped a terrorist organisation, but because I am an independent, questioning and critical journalist.”
Claims of his connection with the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) were baseless, he said. “The accusations are totally unsubstantial. That I have a contact with 92 users of ByLock [a smartphone app said to have been used by Gülen followers] and 21 who are under FETÖ investigation are unsubstantial” said Gürsel.
“Around 85 people sent me an SMS once and 17 people called me. As I have not answered those who sent me an SMS, the allegation that I contacted them cannot be accepted,” he told the court.
“It is a fool’s errand that a relationship can be established between my editorial consultancy and the change in the newspaper’s so-called publishing policy. How is possible that a person who started their work on Sept. 27, 2016 and stayed at their job for only 34 days, can change the publishing policy? That I have been a columnist for five months does not have an impact on changing the publishing policy,” he said.
The 324-page indictment alleges Cumhuriyet was effectively taken over by the network of the U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, believed to have been behind the failed July 15, 2016 coup attempt.
One of the other defendants, Murat Sabuncu demanded his plea be adjourned to July 25, stating that some of his documents and newspaper reports had been confiscated. The court later accepted his request.
Other defendants include Ahmet Şık, who once wrote a book critical of Gülen’s movement.
The chairman of Cumhuriyet, Akın Atalay, described the investigation into the newspaper as “a complete legal murder,” stating that the goal was either to silence the daily or take it over.
“This newspaper that is subject to this operation, that wants to be taken, whose resistance wants to be broken, that is desired to be brought to knees is not just an ordinary newspaper,” Atalay said in his defence to the court.
He said the newspaper had no relationship with organisations that infiltrated the state, vowing to continue its struggle to carry out journalism to the end.
Atalay said accusations that the editorial policy of the daily had been changed over the past three years were untrue adding that it was “dubious” to use such an issue to frame an accusation based on penal law.
Being tried in his absence is the paper’s former editor-in-chief Can Dündar, who was last year sentenced to five years and 10 months in jail over a front-page story accusing the government of sending weapons to Syria. He now lives in exile in Germany. In Berlin, Dundar told The Associated Press in an interview that it was “ironic” that his colleagues were defending themselves in court on Turkey’s press freedom day.
Earlier in the day, members of the Assembly, journalists, rights activists, Cumhuriyet readers and many citizens gathered in front of the Çağlayan courthouse, where the journalists are appearing before the judge. Another group gathered in front of the Cumhuriyet building in the Şişli district and started to march toward the courthouse at around 9 am.
“Journalism is not a crime,” several hundred people gathered outside the Istanbul court chanted. Some flew dozens of multicoloured balloons outside the courthouse, chanting, “Don’t be silenced! A free media is a right!”
“This case is about criminalising journalism. It’s about punishing those who speak out. And if it works here today in this week, they will do it again, again, and again,” said Steven M. Ellis, director of communications of the International Press Institute, who arrived in Istanbul to observe the trial, along with other representatives of international media freedom advocacy groups.
Lawmakers from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) also joined the hearings.
“According to the government, everyone in opposition is a terrorist, the only non-terrorists are themselves,” Filiz Kerestecioğlu, a member of parliament from the HDP, told reporters before the trial.