Journalism on trial: 'Cumhuriyet' case continues

By Gülsin Harman, a freelance journalist and International Press Institute (IPI) member in Turkey

The case against 'Cumhuriyet' newspaper represents a persistent crackdown on press freedom in Turkey, undermining the rule of law and an exhausting injustice. It has become in itself a completely accurate representation the of current state of affairs in Turkey for any adequate opposition or eagerness to pursue journalism.

Musa Kart Cartoonist Musa Kart (r.), publisher Akin Atalay and author Ahmet Şik in trial. (By Murat Başol)

An inescapable arbitrariness overrules the rule of law. This grim reality loomed over my visit to Kadri Gursel, a prominent journalist and editorial advisor to 'Cumhuriyet', in Silivri prison.

We were granted permission as the International Press Institute’s (IPI) National Committee after he had been in detention for 11 months. He was vigorously crafting his second testimony to dismiss the bogus charges against him once again with facts, objective reality and evidence.

But why are 'Cumhuriyet' journalists including Gursel still in jail, why do very few of their colleagues dare to hope for their release even though the charges are refuted? Their imprisonment is political, as Gursel himself is well aware. Any assessment based solely on the legal framework would be self-delusional.

According to IPI, more than 170 journalists are imprisoned in Turkey. At the Justice Rally on the 9 July to denounce the corruption and absolute politicisation of judiciary among many other things, when the main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu called for the release of journalists and a certain restoration of press freedom, a thunderous applause answered him from the crowd of hundreds of thousands.

Public support never vanished

Despite everything, a certain public support has never vanished for 'Cumhuriyet'. According to some observers’ appraisal, this may have lead to the release of the seven media workers who were bailed at the first trial. Every day on social media, abundant anger and protests aim to disprove the absurd accusations against 'Cumhuriyet' journalists. The solidarity initiative called “Journalists Outside” keeps the public interest alive with innovative tactics.

But to what extent has the case reached the public’s awareness? 'Cumhuriyet' is one of the most long-established newspapers in the country and broadly represents the secular opposition. Kadri Gursel and Ahmet Sik are household names with strong political convictions in Turkish journalism - a fact that has certainly contributed to raising the profile of the case. But many other journalists’ cases remain unknown to the general public.

For as journalists in Turkey, we have failed to convince a larger audience that with every journalist who is silenced, their very right to be informed is under attack. Another aspect is the climate of intimidation and the almost total uprooting of the mainstream media. The media landscape, with the mainstream reduced to varying levels of pro-government editorial policies, does not allow us to speak out and intensify our advocacy efforts.

Looking back, the symbolism was far too murky to ignore. The first trial of the 'Cumhuriyet' case opened on the 24 July, the 109th anniversary of the abolition of official press censorship after 32 years of oppressive rule by Sultan Hamid the Second.

To increase the bitter irony the targeted newspaper’s name 'Cumhuriyet' stands for 'Republic' in Turkish. At a time when all the institutions and founding principles of the Turkish Republic are tumbling down under a gradually more authoritarian government, a fierce bid to intimidate and finally silence the most well-established national newspaper, which is perceived as the last bastion of secular opposition and sole remaining independent voice in the mainstream media, this completes the dreadful picture.

A bunch of colourful balloons was released on the morning of first trial, with the resilient hope that we shall witness the release of all eleven 'Cumhuriyet' journalists and executives after nine months of pre-trial detention of which six months were spent behind bars without an indictment. On the 28 July, seven of them were finally released. But the ordeal was not finished for five of them.

The trial will be held in prison

On Monday September 11, Executive Board Chair Akin Atalay, Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu, Kadri Gursel, reporter Ahmet Sik and accountant Emre Iper will appear as defendants before the tribunal, but this time in Silivri, in a courtroom within the gargantuan prison complex, where they have been imprisoned for more than 300 days, and in Ahmet Sik’s case for more than 200 days. A dozen witnesses will be heard and an interim ruling is expected on the prospects for their release. In the previous trial, the chief judge had declared that he has the intention to conclude the trial with a final verdict. Possible sentences demanded from the prosecution, varies from seven and a half to 43 years for each defendant. The decision to transfer the trial to Silivri and a possible rapid dénouement has baffled the observers. Good sign or bad sign? Everybody has their own interpretations, coupled with some rumours coming from circles of power or the most skilled kind of 'fortune telling' based on some signs they have recognised.

In the first session, Akin Atalay, a lawyer by profession, demolished the bogus charges. Sabuncu’s compelling vow to uphold journalistic principles was an ethical lesson for those who want to hear him out. Sik’s defence was a Turkish 'J’accuse'. In this tour de force he refused to bow down to the vicious pressure. And Gursel’s was testimony a rhetorical masterpiece that exposed the skullduggery for what it is, “The reason that I am here in front of you is not because I 'helped a terror organisation while not being a member. It's because I was an independent, critical, questioning journalist and because I have never compromised my work as a journalist and always insisted on doing my job correctly'.

They were questioned about the choice of headlines, overall editorial line, the coverage of certain news and interviews - even the wording of the articles. The outcry from Orhan Erinc’s executive of 'Cumhuriyet', demonstrated how the journalism was targeted. 'It has been three days in this court,(and) all you are asking are the news, news and news', he said in his questioning.

'Cumhuriyet' journalists are unbowed and defiant. They wiped away all of the concerns about their well-being in the courtroom. It was our first sight of them in nine months and gave us the courage to carry on the struggle against all odds. As journalists in Turkey, we are committed to emulate their resistance to the crackdown and intimidation.

ECPMF's in depth blog about the first 'Cumhuriyet' trial (for which we were in Istanbul)