Press freedom declines sharply in Turkey

Friday 22/01/2016
Case is amplifying concerns about press freedom

ISTANBUL - Turkish prosecutors Wednesday demanded life sentences for two top journalists from the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper on charges of revealing state secrets with a report that had alleged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government tried to send arms into Syria.
Prosecutors asked the Istanbul court to sentence editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul each to a penalty comprising one aggravated life sentence, one ordinary life sentence and 30 years in jail, the Dogan news agency reported.
An aggravated life sentence means tougher conditions, including restricting a prisoner's leisure hours.
It is not unusual in Turkey for prosecutors to seek a combined penalty of life sentences plus a term in jail, but this is done in cases involving violent crimes, such as murder.
Both Erdogan and the head of the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) Hakan Fidan -- the president's hugely powerful but low-profile ally -- are named as plaintiffs in the 473-page indictment.
Dundar and Gul were both placed under arrest in late November over the report earlier in the year that claimed to show proof that a consignment of weapons seized at the border in January 2014 was bound for Islamist rebels in Syria.
Since then, they have both been held in the Silivri jail on the outskirts of Istanbul ahead of their trial, whose date has still yet to be announced.
In the indictment, they have been formally charged with obtaining and revealing state secrets "for espionage purposes" and seeking to "violently" overthrow the Turkish government as well as aiding an "armed terrorist organisation", it said.
The penalties demanded by the prosecutors are far heavier than expected.
The case has amplified concerns about press freedom under the rule of Erdogan, who had personally warned Dundar he would "pay a price" over the front-page story.
US Vice President Joe Biden, on an official visit to Istanbul last week, complained that media were being "intimidated or imprisoned for critical reporting" in Turkey.
"That's not the kind of example that needs to be set," said Biden, who also met with the wife and son and of Dundar in talks that hugely irritated the government.
News of the indictment coincided with the publication in Istanbul of its annual report by US-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW), which denounced the prosecution of the pair.
"We are absolutely clear that Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, in publishing stories on that subject were doing their job as journalists and nothing more than that," HRW's Turkey representative Emma Sinclair Webb told reporters.
She added: "Turkish political leaders, especially the president, have showed an unprecedented willingness over the last years to create a climate of fear for their critics and demonise their opponents."
Delegates from press freedom groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Wednesday joined a vigil outside the jail to support the reporters, urging Turkey to free them "without delay".
Dundar, now in jail for a 63rd day according to Cumhuriyet, has not stopped writing columns for his paper and in his latest article attacked Erdogan for seeking to squeeze out dissent in the country.
"They are trying to limit us, this society, this country and this world to one colour," wrote Dundar.
"Only the 'chief' would be allowed to speak, everyone would praise him and not a single objection would be made."
But he added: "Even if you make us pay the heaviest price, we will continue to tell and write the truth. You cannot defeat us."