On trial for supporting terrorist groups, Turkey's journalists fight back

Seventeen newspaper staff on trial this week in Istanbul are just a fraction of the more than 150 journalists in custody in Turkey. They are accused of supporting terrorist groups, but is it terrorism or journalism that's on trial?

17 staff from country’s oldest newspaper could learn this week if they’ll be released

Supporters of the Cumhuriyet newspaper staff on trial in Istanbul gather daily at the Caglayan courthouse. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

Ahmet Sik delivered his defence, but refused to plead. If prosecutors in Istanbul were expecting a subdued or scared journalist to stand before them Wednesday, they were mistaken.

Sik has already served time in prison for his work. Now an investigative journalist with Cumhuriyet, Turkey's oldest newspaper, he was defiant.

"What I say is not defence or expression. On the contrary, it is an accusation," he said.

Sik and 16 of his colleagues are on trial for charges including supporting a terrorist organization. They are some of the tens of thousands of people detained since the coup attempt last summer.

Sik called the indictment levelled by prosecutors "trash" and turned the table on an increasingly agitated prosecutor, accusing the government of nurturing the group Sik and his colleagues are accused of supporting. He also alleged that some of Turkey's judges are complicit in the crimes.

They "themselves have become the gravediggers for justice," Sik said in court.

It was the third day of testimony in a packed, stifling courtroom at what's become known as the Cumhuriyet 17 trial, focusing on Sik and 16 of his colleagues — everyone from journalists and a caricaturist to board members and lawyers.

If convicted, some of those on trial this week face as many as 43 years in prison.

A man holds a portrait of jailed investigative journalist Ahmet Sik outside Istanbul's courthouse. Sik was honoured with the 2013 International Press Freedom Award from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Any perceived association, interview or conversation with any group the government may deem a threat is fuel for the allegations against the journalists. 

That might involve "the Kurdish movement, the Communist movement, whatever you can imagine," says journalist Zeynep Oral, a Cumhuriyet columnist and president of PEN Turkey.

"Some of them are being questioned for just saying: 'I'm not guilty.' "

One of the main charges levelled against the group is that their headlines, caricatures and stories somehow suggest support for Fethullah Gulen, the man the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes was behind the deadly coup attempt last summer.

Raising questions

Sik and his colleagues are well-known not for supporting Gulen, but for warning Turkey about the cleric's growing power, amassed over 40 years. They have raised questions about why he appeared to be so cozy with so many of Turkey's leaders over the years, particularly Erdogan and why his followers were filling key positions in the public service. 

Biting back at Erdogan's assertion last year that the government was "deceived" by Gulen and his powerful cemaat — or congregation — before the coup attempt, Sik testified "No, you have not been deceived. On the contrary, you tried to fool us together."

A caricature from Cumhuriyet's Musa Kart, one of the 17 people on the newspaper's staff on trial this week. His work often lampooned Fethullah Gulen, the man the Turkish government believes was behind the deadly coup last summer. (Musa Kart)

The testimony, described by supporters as fearless, buoyed their hopes for the group's release and quickly exploded on social media.

But Turkey's president does not always respond well to direct challenges, particularly on the issue of press freedom.

The Turkish government's position has and continues to be that the majority of those in prison are not there because they are journalists.

"A great majority of the people you know as journalists are people who are helping terror," Erdogan said in answer to a question from a journalist at a G20 news conference in Hamburg in early July.

"You must not know that I was jailed for reading a poem when I was mayor of Istanbul," the president said. "I'm sensitive to the issue of freedom of thought."

The threat of a deeper crackdown does not deter Oral or the other Cumhuriyet supporters.

"We don't do things because presidents [want or don't want it]," she said. "We do things because we can't behave otherwise."

Making an impact

Steven Ellis, director of advocacy and communications for the International Press Institute in Vienna, believes the concern and pressure from the international community make an impact, whether the government admits it openly or not.

"On one level, it seems like he doesn't care, but you see when we speak out or others speak out he reacts angrily," said Ellis, one of several international observers in the courtroom this week.

"It's very important for us to make sure people in Turkey and around the world know what's going on."

Aydin Engin, a Cumhuriyet columnist, and his colleagues were first rounded up at the end of October. He is 76 and one of the few released as he awaited trial. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

At 76, Aydin Engin has tracked a lot of what's gone on in Turkey over the years as a columnist for Cumhuriyet. He is the oldest of those taken into custody last October, and one of the few to be released pending trial. Before delivering his own defence, he revealed what he plans to say on the stand.

Even appearing in court for an indictment he calls "empty" makes him "feel ashamed for our legal system, and I feel sad for my country."

The court has three options before it: force those in custody to remain there as the rest of the trial continues, release some of them or release all of them.

"I studied law," Engin said outside the courthouse. "They shouldn't be held in prison for one minute."

"If my friends are released, there's a chance I can start to think that Turkey's judiciary is independent."

Human dignity is being attacked.- Zeynep Oral

Another of the accused, columnist and editorial consultant Kadri Gursel, fought back on that front on the first day of testimony.

"Journalists are curious people and [in the course of their work] they meet different people," he said, answering the allegations that the Cumhuriyet staff may have communicated with people the government accuses of terror. "This is called journalism, and journalism is not a crime."

But Oral believes it goes beyond even journalism. Her stoicism wavers, her eyes welling up behind her sunglasses as she points to the courthouse behind her.

"In there, everybody is very strong very cheerful, but then I go home and I cry for hours because I feel human dignity is being attacked." 

About the Author

Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She recently returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey.