Press freedom activists read opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet during a demonstration in solidarity with the jailed members of the newspaper outside a courthouse, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 28, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Murad Sezer
(Berlin) – The 14 journalists, staff, and board members of the Turkish- daily newspaper Cumhuriyet sentenced to prison on April 25, are being punished for doing their jobs, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The convictions of Cumhuriyet journalists without any credible evidence of wrongdoing, coupled with harsh jail sentences, further erode Turkey’s democratic credentials,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Cumhuriyet trial is part a systematic effort to silence independent media and critical voices in Turkey to prevent public scrutiny of the government.”

The evidence cited in the indictment seen by Human Rights Watch consists of journalistic work: news articles, reporting, opinion articles, interviews, phone records, and contacts with alleged supporters of Fethullah Gülen, the head of a movement accused by the Turkish government of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Turkey who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States.

The indictment also cites defendants’ social media posts. The journalistic works and written content cited in the indictment criticize the government and government policies, but none incite, praise, or advocate violence in any way. None of the evidence in the indictment appears to point to any kind of criminal wrongdoing, much less aiding terrorist groups, Human Rights Watch said.

Turkey’s overbroad terrorism laws and a judiciary that increasingly accepts as fact allegations made and dubious evidence put forward by state prosecutors have facilitated a major crackdown on the media. The crackdown has intensified since the failed coup attempt in 2016 and turned the country into the world leader at jailing journalists.

The trial began on July 24, 2017. On April 25, the 27th Istanbul Heavy Penalty Court convicted 13 of the defendants of aiding a terrorist organization. The sentences were eight years in prison for Akın Atalay, the Cumhuriyet board chairman; seven-and-a-half years for Murat Sabuncu, the editor-in-chief; Ahmet Şık, a reporter; and Aydin Engin, a columnist; and more than six years for Hikmet Çetinkaya, a columnist, and Orhan Erinç, a board member.

Other sentences were more than four years for Bülent Utku, a lawyer and board member; more than three years for Musa Kart, a cartoonist; Güray Öz and Hakan Kara, columnists, and Önder Çelik and Mustafa Kemal Güngör, board members; and more than two years for Kadri Gürsel, a columnist. An accountant for the newspaper, Emre Iper, was sentenced to more than three years for terrorism propaganda.

The charges against a former editor-in-chief, Can Dündar, and former Washington correspondent, Ilhan Tanır, were separated out from the case file and may become a separate proceeding. The court acquitted Turhan Günay, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet’s literary supplement, Bülent Yener, a former board member, and Günseli Özaltay, the paper’s chief accountant.

The indictment contends that Cumhuriyet radically changed its editorial policies in 2013, when Dündar became editor-in-chief, to produce propaganda and become the “press outlet” for three groups categorized by the Turkish authorities as terrorist organizations. They are the Gülen movement, the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the left wing Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front (DHKP-C).

The indictment alleged that Cumhuriyet journalists and executives aided a terrorist consortium consisting of these three groups although the groups have diametrically opposed agendas, making the idea of a consortium among them far-fetched. The judge accepted these arguments.

During the raid on the newspaper’s Istanbul office on October 31, 2016, the police detained at least 12 journalists. On November 5, 2016, the 9th Istanbul Peace Court arrested Utku, Sabuncu, Gürsel, Öz, Çelik, Günay, Kart, Kara, and Güngör. Atalay was arrested on November 12, 2016, by the 9th Istanbul Peace Court. Şık was arrested on December 30, 2016 by the 8th Istanbul Peace Court. Warrants have been issued for Dündar and Tanır. The remaining defendants were not detained.

Sabuncu and Şık spent well over a year in pretrial detention before being released on March 9, 2018, pending the end of the trial. Atalay has been in detention for over 540 days and was released on the day of the judgment, pending the appeal. Other detained defendants were released conditionally during the course of the trial.

“The deeply unjust jail sentences handed to Cumhuriyet’s journalists, board and staff members are fresh evidence that the Turkish judiciary is failing to protect rights and defend the rule of law,” Williamson said. “Instead Turkish courts act as the willing handmaidens for state repression.”