Facing jail, staff from Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper vow to keep working

Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief said he was unbowed by government crackdown.
Friday 27/04/2018
A Turkish police officer walks past the Cumhuriyet daily newspaper building in Istanbul. (AFP)
A Turkish police officer walks past the Cumhuriyet daily newspaper building in Istanbul. (AFP)

ANKARA - The editor-in-chief of Turkey’s opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper said he was unbowed by a government crackdown and would not abandon journalism, a day after a court sentenced him and more than a dozen colleagues to prison on terrorism charges.

Murat Sabuncu was one of 14 Cumhuriyet staff members given sentences ranging from 2 1/2 to 7 1/2 years in prison on charges for supporting the network of a cleric Ankara blames for a 2016 attempted coup. Three other staff members were acquitted.

Prosecutors said the journalists, who denied the charges and were released on bail pending appeal, used “asymmetric war methods” against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The case sparked global outrage and is one of several high-profile trials seen as emblematic of the sweeping crackdown since Erdogan announced a state of emergency following the attempted coup.

“As journalists, we will continue to do our tasks, to put up a fight, we will continue to write the truth,” Sabuncu said at a rally outside the Istanbul courthouse where the early parts of his trial took place.

Sabuncu and Ahmet Sik, a prominent journalist and author, received the stiffest sentences.

“The 7 1/2-year sentence has no meaning for me,” Sabuncu said.

The Cumhuriyet, long seen as a thorn in Erdogan’s side, is one of the few remaining outlets critical of the government. Free speech advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 157th out of 180 countries in its annual ranking of global media freedom, down two spots from last year.

More than 120 journalists have been detained and more than 180 media outlets have been closed under the state of emergency, rights group Amnesty International said.

Rights groups and Western allies have said media independence is important as Turkey, still under emergency rule, heads into snap elections called by Erdogan on June 24.

Erdogan and his ministers dominated the airwaves in the run-up to a referendum last year in which Turks narrowly backed changing the constitution to give Erdogan more powers. The media saturation is seen as likely to intensify after the sale of broadcaster CNN Turk and other outlets to a company seen as close to Erdogan.

“Unfortunately, there is no justice or judicial system in Turkey right now,” Akin Atalay, the Cumhuriyet’s chairman who was sentenced to 7 years and 3 months, said at the rally hours after his release.

Unlike the others, Atalay had been detained for the duration of the trial — 543 days. “Even breathing outside is a very beautiful thing, I tasted that last night,” he said.

Pro-government newspapers largely ignored the verdict. The Cumhuriyet’s main headline was “The Shame of Justice.”

Prosecutors had sought sentences of up to 43 years in prison, charging the newspaper was effectively taken over by supporters of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who denies Ankara’s accusations he was behind the failed coup.

Prosecutors said the newspaper “virtually became a defender and protector” of Gulen’s network as well as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party and a far-left group.

Sabuncu and Atalay said they could not enjoy their freedom on bail as long as there were others still in jail.

“There are many journalists, academics, lawmakers and enlightened people in jail in Turkey,” Sabuncu said. “It is a saddening situation in terms of freedom of thought, democracy and press freedom.”