What Turkey’s Cumhuriyet case tells us

What Turkey’s Cumhuriyet case tells us

Former President Abdullah Gül recently said that journalists who are being tried should not be imprisoned. He said this in response to a question about the case against daily Cumhuriyet journalists, which was seen last week and which has attracted international attention and condemnation. 

Gül believes that trying journalist without imprisoning them “will ease pressure on the government at home and abroad.” One wonders whether he uttered his remark out of democratic instincts, or merely - as he appears to be saying – to help “reduce pressure on the government.”

His many lofty past pronouncement on behalf of democracy and freedoms have had no effect on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he co-founded with Erdoğan.
Gül once again did not push hard for his views in this regard either, clearly not wanting to leave Erdoğan or the AKP in a difficult situation. His first allegiance, as he has admitted when asked if he was considering establishing a new political party, has always been to the AKP.

He could not come out therefore – despite his claim to be a staunch supporter of advanced democracy – and say that the Cumhuriyet case represents “injustice at home and disgrace in the world,” as Hürriyet Daily News editor-in-chief Murat Yetkin put it succinctly in a recent article.

Gül’s remark nevertheless reveals an awareness that we are faced with an anomalous situation in Turkey with regard to cases against journalists.  This applies especially to the Cumhuriyet case, which is based on evidence that objective judicial experts say would not stand up in a proper courtroom.

Many believe the Cumhuriyet case is a political one through which the government, which in today’s Turkey means President Erdoğan, is seeking to intimidate what remains of the free press in this country.

Even the decision by the court to release some of the Cumhuriyet journalists last week – although their trial will continue – while keeping the most prominent ones in prison suggests political considerations, rather than being a ruling based on any judicial logic.

The simple fact is that while all of those released are respectable journalists, they are hardly household names in Turkey, let alone the world. Before this case they were mostly known only to devotees of Cumhuriyet, which – despite being the country’s oldest paper - has a circulation that teeters between just 38,000 and 42,000. 

However, that is not the case with Kadri Gürsel and Ahmet Şık, two of the journalists who remain in prison pending trial. Both were widely known and widely read critics of the government long before they joined Cumhuriyet, which in fact happened only a few months before they were arrested. 

Both have been a thorn on the side of the government with their factual reporting and astute analysis in the past, regardless of which media organ they may have been working for at the time.

Together with the paper’s former editor-in-chief Can Dündar, who has taken refuge in Germany, these are names the world knows and associates today not just with the Cumhuriyet case but also with the whole question of freedom of the press in Turkey.

It is not surprising then that many believe this is why they remain in prison, while their colleagues in the same case facing similar charges have been released. 

Erdoğan and his AKP government remain defiant in the face of international pressure regarding these journalists. It is hard not to assume that releasing generally unknown names, while keeping those the world has come to know, is more of a calculated political move than a judicial one. 

The bottom line is simply that those governing Turkey want these journalists punished, no matter what, and in open defiance of international public opinion. The judiciary is working to secure this, regardless of how inconsistent its rulings may be.