Victory in court is bittersweet for Turkish media rights activists
ISTANBUL - Erol Onderoglu does not have to go to prison, at least for now, but that doesn’t mean he feels like a free man.
Onderoglu, the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international media freedom advocacy group, and two other activists charged with spreading “terrorist propaganda” have been found not guilty by a court in Istanbul. Onderoglu will face another trial with similar charges this year and, if convicted, could be sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
Turkey ranks 157th of 180 countries on the RSF’s press freedom index. More than 100 journalists are in prison and hundreds of media outlets have closed in recent years. RSF and other organisations say pressure on media that do not toe the government line has increased dramatically since a coup attempt in 2016.
The government says journalists are not prosecuted because of their work but because they spread messages of terrorist organisations. “Those who put their pens and their cameras into the service of terrorist organisations cannot be [called] journalists in our view,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in June.
The European Union says, however, that Turkey is going through a “serious backsliding” in basic rights and the judiciary. To improve relations with the European Union, Ankara had promised judicial reforms.
Courts in Turkey have recently handed down several decisions in favour of journalists accused of terror-related offenses.
The Constitutional Court of Turkey ruled in June that the arrest of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel, who spent a year in jail before being released in January 2018, had violated the rights of the defendant. Accusations against Yucel included spreading terrorist propaganda by publishing an interview with a Kurdish rebel commander. Erdogan publicly called him “an agent, a terrorist.” Yucel’s lawyer Veysel Ok said the decision by the top court could pave the way for other jailed journalists to be freed.
In July, the country’s highest appeals court acquitted journalist Mehmet Altan, who had been charged with having links to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic cleric accused by Ankara of being the mastermind of the 2016 coup attempt. The court lowered charges against Altan’s brother Ahmet, a former newspaper editor, and Nazli Ilicak, a prominent columnist who had been sentenced to life in prison but may be eligible for early release.
The verdict in Onderoglu’s case came as a surprise to the defendants. Onderoglu had said he expected a prison sentence of around 18 months.
Onderoglu, who was travelling abroad when the verdict in his case was handed down July 17, said it was too early to speak of a positive trend that could widen freedom of expression in the country. “These are pragmatic, good steps,” he said by telephone, referring to the recent verdicts, “but we need acquittal decisions in all the cases.”
His own trial is a case in point. Onderoglu and his co-defendants — Human Rights Foundation of Turkey President Sebnem Korur Fincanci and author Ahmet Nesin — were accused of carrying out terrorist propaganda and incitement to crime after guest-editing Ozgur Gundem, a newspaper focusing on Kurdish issues, and campaigning against efforts to censor it. They said their action was a step to defend media pluralism.
Fincanci told the Evrensel newspaper after the acquittal that the decision by the judiciary to investigate and a 3-year trial because of a non-violent act of solidarity had created “pressure on innocent people.”
The court in Istanbul gave no reason for the acquittals but Onderoglu pointed out that other rights activists who had taken part in guest editing Ozgur Gundem had received prison sentences, suspended sentences or had to pay fines. “The arbitrary measures have to end,” Onderoglu said, adding that he hoped the conclusion of his trial would enable lawyers for other activists to file appeals against guilty verdicts.
Onderoglu must return to court November 7 to face terror-related charges with 16 other activists because they publicly defended the rights of a group of Turkish academics to criticise the government’s Kurdish policy.
International rights groups and organisations welcomed the recent acquittals.
“Erol Onderoglu’s acquittal is an exceptional victory for justice and press freedom in a country where both are being trampled on every day,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement posted on the organisation’s website.
“Our deep relief is tinged with bitterness because our correspondent will be on trial again in four months’ time. The way this historic press freedom defender is being harassed is a deep injustice. We therefore urge the Turkish judicial system to demonstrate the same good sense that it showed today and to quickly abandon this new prosecution.”
Harlem Desir, the media freedom representative of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Turkey is a member, spoke of a “long-awaited ruling, which comes at a crucial time for all journalists in Turkey. I hope that this positive news will reflect on other similar cases of prosecuted journalists and those currently behind bars in the country.”