VIJAY SHAH via Index on Citizenship
Free expression advocate Index on Citizenship has launched a campaign this month to free several Turkish journalists who have been detained in the wake of the failed coup against president Recep Tayyip Erdogan which took place in July with the loss of 250 lives. In the crackdown that followed, thousands of police officers, generals, military stuff and others have been fired, transferred and arrested as the Erdogan administration seeks to purge the country of coup plotters and supporters.
On the 2nd September (this past Friday), the final leg of a trial involving several news personnel took place in an unnamed location, most likely Istanbul. Ahmet Altan, Yasemin Çongar and Yıldıray Oğur, who were senior editors of Taraf newspaper before the coup, and two journalists Mehmet Baransu and Tuncay Opçin. They are on trial for “acquiring, destroying and divulging documents concerning the security of the state and its political interests”. Baransu and Opçin are also facing further charges of “membership and administration of a terrorist organization”, which could see them facing 75 years behind bars. The dissemination charges attract possible 50-year prison terms.
Their charges predate the 15th July military coup attempt, but Index on Citizenship claim that the trial of the newspaper staff is politically motivated and have demanded the immediate release of the five and the abolishment of all charges against them. Mehmet Baransu has been held in pre-trial detention since his arrest on 2 March 2015. Since the declaration of Turkey’s State of Emergency by the president, around a hundred journalists have been detained, Index on Citizenship claims.
The Istanbul Criminal High Court, which was overseeing the trial, had released a 276 page document of indictment detailing the charges against the five journalists. The charges of acquiring and disseminating state documents relate to an obscure military strategy called the Egemen Operation plan, which is said to have detailed the Turkish military response to an invasion by neighbour Greece. However the newspaper at the centre of the allegations, Taraf, did not publish even a single extract of the Egemen plan; a fact acknowledged by the court, and the plan officially expired in 2007, from when the Taraf journalists obtained a copy. Incidentally, the plan was put into public circulation by another unnamed court following an indictment relating to another case in 2011.
The court also claims that Baransu and Opcin are charged with membership and promotion of the Gülenist Terror Organisation (Fetullahçı Terör Örgütü, FETÖ), the group that the Turkish government accuses of being behind the failed coup in July. The Turkish government has only listed FETÖ as a ‘terrorist organisation’ since May 2016, many years after the original ‘offences’ took place.
Index on Citizenship has criticised the Taraf trial on grounds of mismanagement, document plagiarism and weak and circumstantial evidence. The IoC claims that incidents not relating to the charges were used as evidence by the prosecution. No facts were mentioned by the court in relation to the charges of aiding and abetting FETÖ, despite the seriousness of these charges under Turkish law. IoC also alleges that large parts of the Taraf indictment against the five journalists was plagiarised from an earlier indictment against two other editors, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, from the popular daily Cumhuriyet, who were jailed for five years for allegedly whistleblowing secret Turkish arms deals into Syria, said to have been handled by the Turkish Intelligence Service (MIT). The blatant plagiarism, involving both text and images lifted from the Cumhuriyet trial document reached comical levels when a photo used as part of the indictment for the court session against the Taraf staff featured the caption “The Defendant Can Dündar”
The defendants all deny the charges levelled against them and IoC have stated concerns that the trial this past Friday is aimed at stifling opposition voices within Turkey.
The signatories of the campaign to free Altan and his colleagues, which include several national and international free speech and journalism rights organisations, are ARTICLE 19, Index on Censorship, EFJ, Norwegian Press Association, Norwegian Journalists’ Union, PEN Germany, Danish PEN, PEN International, and Wales PEN Cymru. Representatives from all these organisations also attended the trial in person.
The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been accused by outside observers of increasingly limiting press freedom in Turkey as his rule is slowly becoming more autocratic. Journalists have accused Erdogan of orchestrating a ‘witch hunt’ against their colleagues. In March of this year, armed police raided the offices of Zaman, a newspaper critical of Erdogan, and it was subsequently closed down. Since the coup, press freedoms have nosedived, with 130 media outlets ordered to cease trading. Even Twitter was temporarily blocked as the coup took place.