Cumhuriyet trials set litmus test for Turkish democracy

Cumhuriyet trials set litmus test for Turkish democracy

It was an ironic coincidence that more than a dozen executives and journalists from the daily Cumhuriyet appeared in court on Press Freedom Day. Twelve out of 17 have been in prison since November 2016 and it took nine months for them to defend themselves in court.

Murat Sabuncu, the editor-in-chief of the daily, prominent writers Kadri Gürsel and Ahmet Şık, award-winning cartoonist Musa Kart, Turhan Günay, the editor of the literature supplement, and Güray Öz, the daily’s ombudsman, are among those who have been accused on terror-related charges and of supporting multiple terrorist organizations, like the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ).

The trial began on July 24 and is expected to be concluded by the end of this week with our sincere wish that all charges against them will be dropped and our colleagues will be freed.

As a journalist who started his career at the Ankara bureau of Cumhuriyet as a diplomatic reporter in the mid-1990s and spent an entire decade there, it has never been a surprise for me to observe government pressure on this newspaper, but I must confess that I’d never thought that it might one day be accused of supporting terrorist organizations.

As Turkey’s oldest newspaper loyal to secular and democratic values, Cumhuriyet newspaper itself and its prominent figures had been subject to terrorist attacks in the past, leaving Uğur Mumcu and Ahmet Taner Kışlalı as the best known victims behind many others.     

I personally can testify that standing against any terrorist organization and condemning any kind of terrorist act were part of the well-established editorial line of the Cumhuriyet newspaper. None of the accused has anything to do with terror, neither with the PKK nor FETÖ.

Furthermore, even in the mid-1990s, Cumhuriyet newspaper and its executives were well aware of the danger posed by the Gülenist movement and its efforts to infiltrate into state institutions. I, myself, remember headlines devoted to shed light on the dangerous Gülenist structuring within the state, with calls on respective governments that it needs to be stopped.

In 2003, it was Cumhuriyet newspaper that revealed the fact that the deputy prime minister and foreign minister of the time, Abdullah Gül, had instructed Turkey’s diplomatic missions abroad to give all the support to Gülenists and Gülen-related companies, educators as well as non-governmental organizations in the countries where they were representing Turkey.

Mustafa Balbay, now a lawmaker among the senior ranks of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), had spent around five years in jail on charges of plotting a coup against the government in the Ergenekon case. It is now clear all charges were based on fabricated documents and fake evidence produced by Gülenist law enforcement and judicial personnel.

Cumhuriyet’s lead writer İlhan Selçuk was also subjected to terror charges just like many other prominent progressive public figures during the same period.

The last years of the first decade of the 21st century were fully under a dark judicial tutelage at the hands of the Gülenists, which left deep traumas on the public conscience, and Cumhuriyet was one of sufferers of this process. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) was in power at the time and had no visible attempt in trying to reverse this.  

In today’s picture, Cumhuriyet newspaper - along with another critical daily, Sözcü - is being accused by the government of supporting FETÖ.

One should explain this to Şık, an investigative journalist who spent around one year in prison because of a book he wrote revealing the FETÖ danger in the early 2010s. He is again behind bars, deprived of his freedom and his family. One should explain it to Gürsel, too, who openly urged the government that its ties with the Gülen movement can lead to dangerous consequences.

To put it mildly, all these are just bizarre. It’s becoming hard to defend that Turkey is still a democracy, and the government needs to understand that cracking down on critical voices will not make it stronger. In a country where democracy is abandoned, the entire nation and all its institutions will become weaker.