The first hearing of Turkey‘s biggest trial against members of the press has started, involving 44 journalists. Thirty-six of those have been in pre-trial detention since December, facing terrorism charges and accused of backing the illegal pan-Kurdish umbrella group, the KCK.
“This trial is clearly political,” said Ertugrul Mavioglu, an investigative journalist, whose terrorism charges for interviewing Murat Karayilan, a member of the KCK – which includes the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) – were dropped in December last year.
“The government wants to set an example; it wants to intimidate,” he added. “Journalists are being told: ‘There are limits on what you are allowed to say.'”
Human rights groups repeatedly criticise the Turkish government for the prosecution of pro-Kurdish politicians and activists and journalists who exercise the right to freedom of expression.
Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher at Amnesty International, said: “This prosecution forms a pattern [in Turkey] where critical writing, political speeches and participation at peaceful demonstrations are used as evidence of terrorism offences.”
Amnesty International will, in October, publish a report entitled Criminalising dissent: freedom of expression under attack in Turkey. The document is expected to cover a wide range of cases involving the country’s journalists.
More than 100 journalists are in jail in Turkey (more than in Iran or China), and many of these work for Kurdish media outlets. About 800 more face charges, and numerous journalists have been fired or have had to leave their jobs because of pressure from the Turkish government.
In a recent speech, the minister of the interior, Idris Naim Sahin, compared writers and journalists to PKK fighters, saying there was “no difference between the bullets fired in [the Kurdish south-east of Turkey] and the articles written in Ankara”.
Meral Danis Bektas, a lawyer, said Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was openly threatening journalists and dictating what they wrote. “This attitude creates a terrible climate for press freedom.”
Mavioglu said it was becoming increasingly difficult for Turkish journalists to do a good job: “You can write anything, but only under constant threats of unemployment, fines, arrest or worse.”
The government said none of the journalists on trial had been arrested for their work as members of the press, but because of terrorist offences.
However, the 800-page indictment includes a charge of “denigrating the state” against one journalist, who wrote about sexual harassment at Turkish Airlines.
Özlem Agus, a reporter for the pro-Kurdish Tigris News Agency (DIHA), is standing trial for exposing sexual abuse of minors in Pozanti prison, in Adana.
Other offending articles include interviews with Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP), and reports on casualties in the conflicts between the PKK and Turkish armed forces.
Bektas said: “All of the defendants stand trial for doing their jobs. A free press and freedom of expression are cornerstones of democracy. Without them, democratic political participation becomes impossible.”
With about 8,000 pro-Kurdish politicians, lawyers, academics, writers and members of the media, arrested on KCK terrorism charges since 2009, violence in Turkey’s Kurdish south-east has intensified.
According to the International Crisis Group, more than 700 such professionals have died in the past 14 months, the highest number of casualties in the past 13 years.
“If open discussions are banned, if the channels of political dialogue are shut down, violence becomes a last resort,” Bektas said.