(Istanbul) – The trial in Istanbul on March 25, 2016 of two prominent journalists demonstrates the huge restrictions on the media and reporters in Turkey, as well as the president and government’s determination to suppress all critical reporting, Human Rights Watch said today.

Cumhuriyet newspaper front page headline “Yanınızdayız,” meaning “We stand beside you” -an expression of solidarity by intellectuals after the president took legal action against Can Dündar. June 3, 2015. 

Can Dündar, editor of the daily Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gül, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, are on trial in Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No. 14 on charges of obtaining and revealing state secrets for the purpose of espionage, attempting to overthrow the government, and knowingly aiding a terrorist organization. The evidence cited against them consists of a report in the newspaper about arms shipments to Syria through Turkey and their other writings. If convicted, they could face life in prison.

“The trial of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül is about putting journalism itself on trial and is one of the most flawed prosecutions in Turkey in recent times,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Reporting on arms shipments is a matter of public interest in any country whether the government likes it or not.”

The authorities should immediately halt this prosecution and end the unjustified trial and interference with freedom of expression and the public’s right to know, Human Rights Watch said. Dündar and Gül should enjoy full protection of their freedom of expression.

The Istanbul prosecutor’s indictment, prepared in January, followed a criminal investigation that began on May 29, 2015, when Cumhuriyet, a national daily, published a front-page news story saying that Turkey had shipped arms to the armed opposition in Syria. The article appeared under Dündar’s byline and included photographs and a link to an online video purporting to show large quantities of mortar shells, grenade launchers, and ammunition hidden in a Turkish truck bound for Syria in January 2014.

In publishing the story and images, the newspaper challenged Turkish government claims of over more than a year that the trucks had been part of an operation run by Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) to transport humanitarian assistance to Syria.

There has been controversy over allegations that trucks have transferred weapons through Turkey to Syria since January 2014, when public prosecutors in Turkey’s southern city of Adana attempted to investigate the allegations. Because the government had not sought parliamentary authorization to supply weapons to Syrian opposition groups, the whole incident raised serious questions about the extent of Turkey’s involvement in the conflict in Syria.

In the days following publication of the report, both Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the newspaper and its editor of spying. Erdoğan, in a May 31 television interview, stated that, “The person who wrote this news shall pay a heavy price for it, I won’t just let it go.”

On June 2, Erdoğan lodged a separate complaint with the Ankara prosecutor against Dündar, accusing him of publishing “fake images and information” and of crimes including espionage, a coup attempt, and aiding an illegal organization. These allegations are reflected in the charges against the two journalists. Dündar and Gül were detained on November 26. They were released from prison on February 26, 2016 after the Constitutional Court ruled that their pretrial detention was unlawful, arbitrary, and disproportionate and interfered with their right to freedom of expression. Erdoğan strongly criticized the court’s decision.

On May 8, 2015, four prosecutors and a gendarmerie officer involved in investigating the trucks heading for Syria were jailed and put on trial on charges of “obtaining and revealing information pertaining to state security” and “attempting to overthrow the government, or partial or total prevention of government duties.” Their trial at the Court of Cassation 16th Penal Chamber continues.

Prosecutors twice acted on tip-offs and sought to examine the contents of trucks, though the Justice Ministry told them they had no authority to do so, contending that they were part of an intelligence agency operation to carry humanitarian assistance to Syria.

In response to the prosecutors’ attempts to investigate the arms transfers and Cumhuriyet’s reporting, Turkey’s president and government have demonstrated their intention to prevent any legal or journalistic scrutiny of Turkish intelligence operations, Human Rights Watch said.

“Dündar and Gül are being tried on the very same baseless charges that the president suggested in his personal complaint against them last June,” Sinclair-Webb said. “This demonstrates the pressures from above on Turkey’s prosecutors.”