On Thursday, November 21, leading Turkish journalist Kadri Gürsel, an Executive Board member of the International Press Institute (IPI), will be back in court for the start of a re-trial on terrorism-related charges. Gürsel will be joined by 12 former colleagues from the pro-secular newspaper Cumhuriyet.
The re-trial is the latest staging post in the three-year persecution of the Cumhuriyet journalists and one part of a much broader campaign of judicial silencing of Turkey’s journalists.
In April 2018, the 14 journalists were convicted of “aiding without being a member” a range of terrorist groups of vastly different stripes and politics: the Kurdish PKK, the extreme-left DHKP-C, and FETÖ, a government designation for the organization led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey blames for the 2016 coup attempt. They were sentenced to various prison terms.
On September 12, 2019, Turkey’s Supreme Court of Cassation overturned the sentences against 12 defendants due to insufficient evidence for helping a terrorist organization without being a member, except the sentences of Ahmet Şık and Emre İper, which led to release of five journalists in prison and ordered a re-trial.
The Supreme Court tossed the sentence against Şık on the charge of “aiding a terrorist organization” yet ruled for a re-trial on charges of “spreading terrorist propaganda”. İper’s sentence has been approved, but İper was released on October 25 due to time served.
The “evidence” that underpinned the original convictions consisted of the journalists’ news reports, columns, social media posts, and work-related, innocuous or unavoidable contacts from individuals carrying the ByLock encryption application that was supposedly exclusively used by Gülen followers.
The proceedings were plagued by violations of the rule of law. Defendants were effectively punished before conviction, having been held for months in pre-trial detention with arbitrary limits on outside contact and interference with their right to mount a legal defence.
Gürsel was sentenced to two-and-a-half years, which he was serving on probation after having already spent 11 months in pre-trial detention from November 2016 to September 2017.
“It is time the Turkish courts put an end to this charade of a prosecution, and throw the case out for good”, Oliver Money-Kyrle, IPI Turkey programme manager, said. “The only thing these journalists are ‘guilty’ of is conducting journalism.”
On Monday, November 18, the IPI launched its report “Turkey’s Journalists in the Dock: The Judicial Silencing of the Fourth Estate”, put together by a unique coalition of eight press freedom and journalists’ rights organizations, which reveals the extent to which the Turkish judiciary has been compromised and used to oppress critical journalism. The report follows a joint international press freedom mission to Turkey in September.