Noose tightens on Turkish media as court jails two journalists

Sunday 01/05/2016
Erdogan personally warned Dundar he would ‘pay heavy price’

ISTANBUL (Turkey) - An Istanbul court on Friday jailed two opposition journalists on charges of revealing state secrets, in a trial that has become a lightning rod for concerns about the erosion of press freedom in Turkey.

Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of leading opposition daily Cumhuriyet, was sentenced to five years and 10 months at the closed-door trial, while his Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul was handed five years in prison, television stations said.

The sentencing came hours after Dundar escaped an apparent attempt on his life by a gunman outside the courthouse.

The two men were acquitted of espionage but were found guilty of revealing state secrets over a story accusing the government of seeking to illicitly deliver arms bound for Syria.

They will not immediately be placed in detention as the court of appeal has yet to rule on the case.

"We will continue to do our job as journalists, despite all these attempts to silence us," Dundar told reporters after the verdict. "We have to preserve courage in our country."

Media identified the gunman who attacked Dundar outside the courthouse as 40-year-old Murat Sahin.

Brandishing a pistol, the attacker had fired at Dundar as he stood outside during a break as the court prepared to deliver its verdict.

Dundar was unharmed and the gunman, who fired two or three times in front of TV cameras assembled for the trial, was detained by police. NTV television reported that its reporter Yagiz Senkal was lightly injured by a ricocheting bullet.

"You are (a) traitor. You will pay a price," the attacker shouted at Dundar, according to CNN-Turk television.

Television footage showed Dundar's wife Dilek holding the attacker by his collar and handing him to the police, with bloggers on social media saluting her bravery.

Sahin was reportedly a former factory worker who had long been unemployed and had an unspecified criminal past. An Istanbul resident, he hailed from the central Anatolian city of Sivas.

CNN-Turk reported him as saying he had wanted to teach Dundar "a lesson" and that he had acted alone. "I did not want to kill him, but I could have done it," he was quoted as saying.

Special plain clothes police agents turned their weapons on the gunman, ordering him to lie chest down on the ground before detaining him.

"We know very well who showed me as a target," Dundar said after the attack, accusing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and pro-government media of whipping up a climate of hatred against him.

Fears over press freedoms have steadily grown since Erdogan became president in August 2014, with around 2,000 people, including many journalists, facing charges of insulting the president.

"Journalism is considered a crime in Turkey," said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

"This outrageous verdict sends an extremely clear signal of intimidation to an entire profession that is struggling to survive," he added.

RSF ranks Turkey 149th out of 180 countries in its latest World Press Freedom Index.

Secular newspaper Cumhuriyet is staunchly opposed to the Erdogan government.

Its report on a shipment of arms intercepted at the Syrian border in January 2014 sparked a furore when it was published last May, fuelling speculation about Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict and its alleged ties to Islamist groups in the country.

Erdogan had reacted furiously to the allegations, personally warning Dundar he would "pay a heavy price".

Dundar and Gul spent three months in Silivri jail in the Istanbul suburbs, before being freed on February 26 by a constitutional court ruling that Erdogan had publicly condemned.

The state has also accused them of being manipulated by US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen -- Erdogan's arch foe -- but the court has yet to rule on these allegations.

Last week an Istanbul court sentenced two prominent Cumhuriyet journalists to two years behind bars for illustrating their columns with a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed published by French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

There are also concerns about the security of journalists in Turkey, particularly after the 2007 murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

A 17-year-old dropout was convicted of the murder but dozens of former police chiefs went on trial last month on negligence charges for failing to prevent the murder plot.