The International Press Institute (IPI) today renewed its call on Turkey to drop charges against Austrian journalist Max Zirngast, whose trial on baseless terrorism charges is set to begin on April 11.

Zirngast, who has written for leftist magazines such as re:volt and Jacobin, was arrested on September 11, 2018, in Ankara by anti-terror police who raided his flat and confiscated books. The 29-year-old Zirngast was sent the next day to Sincan prison in Ankara where he was held for over three months without official charges until he was released on December 24 pending trial.

Zirngast’s arrest fits a pattern in Turkey of arbitrarily jailing journalists in response to critical work. Around 140 journalists are currently behind bars in Turkey, mostly on suspicion of terrorism offences for which there exists no credible evidence. IPI research shows that journalists are frequently held without official charges and are denied basic rights of defendants in criminal trials.

On the day of his release, prosecutors released a formal indictment accusing Zirngast of “membership of a terrorist organization” without credible evidence. The 123-page indictment alleges links between Zirngast and an “armed illegal terrorist organization” called “TKP/K” (“Türkiye Komünist Partisi/ Kıvılcım, which translates into “Communist Party of Turkey/Spark”) and claims that Zirngast led that group’s operations in Ankara. However, according to research by the #FreeMaxZirngast campaign, there is no evidence that the TKP/K even exists. The group is also not listed on the Turkish government’s list of active terrorist groups. On the contrary, a Turkish court concluded during a trial based on similar charges in 2015 that TKP/K’s existence could not be proven.

Zirngast wrote critical articles of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish government’s policies on Turkish-Kurdish issues. He also contributed to the book “The Fight for Kobane”. Subject to a travel ban, Zirngast remains in Ankara.

“Max Zirngast’s ordeal, rather than being unusual or isolated, fits a pattern of arbitrary jailings and prosecutions of critical journalists and reflects the overall collapse of the rule of law in Turkey”, IPI Turkey Advocacy Coordinator Caroline Stockford said. “Anyone who questions the Turkish government’s policies or writes critically on sensitive issues is a potential target. Once again, we call on Turkey to drop all charges against Mr. Zirngast and allow him to go home.”

In a recent interview with IPI, Zirngast said: “It is hard to defend yourself against something that does not exist. But they needed to construct something, anything, to justify putting me in prison for over three months.”

IPI has organized a press conference on April 10 together with Press Club Concordia in Vienna, Austria, to bring attention to Zirngast’s case ahead of the trial. Zirngast will join the conference via video feed from Turkey to answer questions of Vienna-based journalists and representatives of other press freedom organizations.

IPI is highly concerned that Turkey has established a pattern of jailing and deporting foreign journalists who report critically within the country. In early March 2019, two Turkey correspondents for the German news outlets ZDF and Tagesspiegel were deported from the country after their accreditations for 2019 were rejected. IPI in a joint statement urged Turkish authorities to respect foreign media outlets’ independence. ZDF Istanbul bureau chief Jörg Brase’s accreditation was renewed in the following days.

In another major incident, the correspondent for Germany’s Welt newspaper, Deniz Yücel, was arrested on February 14, 2017. Accused of “inciting the public to racial hatred and enmity” and “spreading the propaganda of a terrorist organization”, Yücel was held in pretrial detention for a year without an official indictment. On the day of his release, prosecutors submitted a three-page-long indictment requesting an 18-year prison sentence. Yücel’s next hearing will also take place on the same day with Zirngast’s case on April 11.