Journalists in Turkey’s courts

Journalists in Turkey’s courts

On March 22, the International Press Institute (IPI) called on the Turkish authorities to “obey their oaths to uphold the country’s Constitution and to respect decisions by the Constitutional Court upholding human rights.” This call also included the recent decision to release the controversially charged Cumhuriyet editors.

Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül appeared before the judge on March 25 in their ongoing trial, accused of military espionage and helping an illegal organization trying to overthrow the government. The charges carry life sentences for both of them. 

Shortly before the case began, the prosecutor of the 14th Istanbul Criminal Court, which had released Dündar and Gül from pre-trial detention upon the Constitutional Court ruling, was changed by the Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), headed by the justice minister. 

That decision was taken after persistent statements by President Tayyip Erdoğan, who said he thought the journalists should have been kept in jail. Refusing to respect the decision of the Constitutional Court - which had concluded that the Gül and Dündar were using their press freedom by publishing documents regarding weapons allegedly sent to Syrian rebel groups - Erdoğan claimed they were committing nothing other than espionage. 

The case was opened against the two journalists after Erdoğan’s lawyers filed a suit with the prosecutor’s office, and lawyers representing both the president and the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) were accepted as plaintiffs in the case on March 25. Then, after ruling that the trial would be closed to the public, the court postponed the case until April 1.

Dündar said during the trial on March 25 that they were “there to defend the people’s right to know.”

There was in fact another Turkish journalist appearing before a judge on March 25. 

Sedat Ergin, the editor-in-chief of Hürriyet, still Turkey’s most influential mainstream newspaper, appeared at the Istanbul 54th Penal Court of First Instance to be tried over “insulting the president,” (one of the most popular cases opened by prosecutors in today’s Turkey). 

He was charged over a badly edited news report that appeared on the Hürriyet website for just a few minutes before the mistake was seen and the story withdrawn. Facing four years in prison if found guilty, Ergin said he was devastated to have been taken to court for the first time in his 41 years as a journalist on such an accusation. Recalling that he had already expressed sorrow on behalf of Hürriyet in a public letter because of the mistake, which had not intended to “insult” the president anyway, Ergin said “press freedom was confined within court corridors” in present-day Turkey.

Indeed, the freedom of expression situation in Turkey today is not independent of legal independence, as an increasing number of journalists are being tried over what they print or broadcast, subject to court cases that are often opened upon complaints filed by the political authorities.

The outlook certainly does not look very bright, and journalism in Turkey is far from enjoying its golden age.