Turkey’s free press on trial – POLITICO

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ISTANBUL

dropIn a small courtroom at the city’s gargantuan Palace of Justice, Canan Coşkun took the stand with her hands clasped nervously behind her back.

As a journalist covering the courts for Cumhuriyet — the Turkish newspaper that has been most outspokenly critical of the government — Coşkun is no stranger to judicial proceedings. But on this Tuesday morning in June, she wasn’t there to cover a case. She was on trial herself, for the fourth time this year.

In the grand scheme of things, she later said, this case against her was puny — ridiculous even: When she had attempted to enter a courtroom to report, the usher had pushed her out for no discernible reason. Coşkun then told him off for being “rude,” prompting the usher to sue her for “insulting” him. “He did that because I am a Cumhuriyet reporter,” she said.

Much to Coşkun’s relief, the judge acquitted her within minutes. Many of her colleagues, however, have not been so lucky. Last fall, police raided the homes of a dozen senior Cumhuriyet staff, including the editor-in-chief, and detained them on terror charges. They are awaiting trial, joining what press freedom groups say are more than 150 journalists currently held in Turkish prisons, the overwhelming majority of them on terror charges.

Canan Coşkun at her desk in the Cumhuriyet newsroom | Bradley Secker for POLITICO

Canan Coşkun at her desk in the Cumhuriyet newsroom | Bradley Secker for POLITICO

 

MEDIA CRACKDOWN

dropThis week, Turks will mark the first anniversary of the coup attempt that shook their country on July 15 last year. The government has planned a days-long celebration to commemorate what has rightly been cast as a triumph of democracy: ordinary people confronting tanks and guns to defend their elected leadership.

Yet to critics of the government, the day also marks the beginning of a steep democratic decline. Following the failed coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared a state of emergency and vowed to “cleanse” Turkey of the followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based imam he accuses of orchestrating the putsch.

Turkey’s European and American allies urged restraint, but their warnings fell on deaf ears. Erdoğan’s pledge swiftly manifested itself in an extensive purge of state institutions, security forces and civil society, focusing first on so-called Gülenists, before expanding to target critics of any kind. A year on, some 50,000 people have been jailed; more than 100,000 have lost their jobs.

The country’s critical media, already under fire before the coup, was hit particularly hard. Ankara’s crackdown on free speech didn’t begin last July — Erdoğan himself has famously sued some 2,000 people for “insulting” him — but since then, the repression of dissent has reached dizzying proportions.

About 150 media outlets have been shuttered since the coup attempt. The exact estimate of detained journalists varies, but most press freedom groups put their number at around 150, awarding Turkey the dubious distinction of the world’s top jailer of journalists.

After Erdoğan narrowly won an April referendum designed to expand his powers, some observers hoped the victory would move him to go easy on his critics. But the cycle of arrests and dismissals continued. Last month, a court sentenced an opposition lawmaker to 25 years in prison on “espionage” charges, prompting the largest protest in the country since 2013.

Turkish soldiers surrender on the Bosphorus bridge following a coup attempt last year | Getty Images

Turkish soldiers surrender on the Bosphorus bridge following a coup attempt last year | Getty Images

 

TERRORISM CHARGES

dropThe failed putsch and subsequent purge have transformed Turkey — and Coşkun’s job. As a reporter covering the courts, she has had a front-row seat to mass trials and the swift erosion of judicial independence.

Run-of-the-mill corruption, assault, or murder cases now barely feature in her articles, as coup cases have flooded Turkey’s courts and filled its prisons. And increasingly, it’s the cases of her own colleagues that take up the bulk of her time.

“I don’t only cover journalism trials, but nowadays I don’t have much time for other cases,” she said. “Journalists cannot do their real jobs, because they’re either on trial themselves or attending solidarity events in support of jailed colleagues.”

According to Erdoğan, not a single journalist is in prison in Turkey because of his or her reporting. One, he recently claimed, is on trial for murder; the rest have been detained for their ties to terror groups.

Technically, this is true: Every journalist arrested since the coup has been charged with a terror offense. Kurdish journalists — and any reporter casting a critical eye on security operations in the Kurdish-majority southeast — are easily charged with “making terror propaganda” on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that has fought the Turkish state for decades.

Most of the journalists arrested recently, however, have been accused of supporting Gülen, and therefore the attempted coup. The government has designated Gülen’s opaque network a terrorist group dubbed the “Fethullahist Terror Organization,” or “FETÖ” for short — a label few other nations recognize.

A peek at the indictments on file is enough to reveal that journalists are, in fact, on trial because of their work: Cases hinge on reporters’ employment records, articles, contacts, television appearances and tweets; if a journalist speaks to a suspected Gülenist for a story — and almost anyone can find themselves labelled a Gülenist — he or she can expect to be charged with FETÖ membership as well.

“All evidence against them is their news reports and tweets,” Coşkun said of the media cases she has covered. “But in order to conceal that, prosecutors fabricate ridiculous accusations.”

The Cumhuriyet Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül, center, leaves the Çağlayan courthouse in Istanbul, after his trial in 2016 | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

The Cumhuriyet Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül, center, leaves the Çağlayan courthouse in Istanbul, after his trial in 2016 | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

 

GUILT BY ASSOCIATION

dropa week after her acquittal, Coşkun arrived at court to cover the trial of Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, two well-known columnists who had been arrested and charged with terror crimes in September.

The brothers, both in their 60s, were accused of sending “subliminal messages” in support of overthrowing the government during a television appearance the day before the attempted coup. Rights groups describe the charges as baseless.

It was a high-profile trial; the Altans were being tried alongside 15 others, many of them former employees of the flagship pro-Gülen newspaper Zaman. Outside the courtroom, relatives, journalists, press freedom advocates and international observers jostled to get on the guards’ access list; the crowd was too large to fit into the courtroom’s small public gallery.

The guards let relatives and diplomats pass — but not journalists there to report on the trial. (Reporters of pro-government media, however, had somehow found their way past the gate.) Coşkun was enraged. “Who do you think you are? Shame on you!” she screamed at the guards, sparking a heated argument with the court officials.

For a moment, it seemed as if the guards would detain her. But eventually, they relented, letting several reporters pass. Still angry but triumphant, Coşkun stormed past them. “She does that a lot,” one of her colleagues commented.

“It’s routine to have to argue for access during big cases,” Coşkun explained later. “If we stay silent, we don’t get to write reports.”

She had plenty to write. Once the trial got underway, the judge read out the prosecution’s case against the brothers, which rested largely on their work for Gülen-linked media outlets and their alleged contacts with suspected Gülenists. The brothers, in turn, tried to dismantle the state’s logic in their defense statements.

“If you know a criminal, does that make you a criminal too?” Ahmet Altan asked the judge. “If your neighbor is tried for forgery, will you also be tried for forgery because you know him?”

Such reasoning — that whoever speaks to a Gülenist must also be a Gülenist — has been used to justify numerous arrests, said Coşkun, including those of her Cumhuriyet colleagues, who are also facing terror charges. The evidence against the paper’s columnist Kadri Gürsel, for instance, includes text messages he received from suspected Gülenists — to which he did not even respond.

Other Cumhuriyet staff are accused of even more tenuous links: Akın Atalay, the paper’s chief executive, had hired a handyman for some work around his house. That handyman’s son, it emerged, happened to have a contract with another company, whose owner was a suspected Gülenist.

“So now they’re using that as evidence that he’s a Gülenist,” Coşkun said, struggling not to swear. The article she and three other Cumhuriyet reporters wrote about Atalay’s indictment included an acerbic note to the reader: “If you have work done on your hardwood floors, you need to know the other customers and the details of their investigation records.”

Protesters hold up copies of Cumhuriyet the day after its editor in chief was detained by police | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

Protesters hold up copies of Cumhuriyet the day after its editor in chief was detained by police | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

 

PERSONAL TRIALS

dropGiven the vastly more serious charges brought against her colleagues, who could spend their lives in prison if convicted, Coşkun was reluctant to discuss her own trials, calling them “meaningless” in comparison. They are, however, symptomatic of the judicial harassment faced by many critical journalists in Turkey.

Besides the usher’s “insult” accusation, Coşkun has faced three separate charges since the beginning of the year: In January, she was fined 12,000 lira (about €3,000) for “insulting” members of the judiciary, after she wrote about government-friendly judges receiving generous discounts when buying houses. (Cumhuriyet is appealing against her conviction.)

In May, she received two 10-month suspended sentences. The first involved a story on a secret weapons transport, in which she reported that Turkish intelligence had sent ammunition hidden under crates of onions to radical Syrian militias; a court convicted her of “publicly humiliating the military and police force.”

The second sentence she received for a story in which she mentioned the names of police officers who had beaten up Kurdish children in Istanbul; by naming them, the court decided, Coşkun had made the officers targets for terrorists.

In between her court appearances, Coşkun has been left free to continue reporting — unlike her colleagues charged with terror crimes. Journalists accused of supporting FETÖ or the PKK are locked away in pre-trial detention, often for months, some for more than a year.

“The state is using the judiciary as a tool to silence and punish its opponents,” Coşkun said. “It’s been like this in the past, but it has become worse.”

To many Turks, there’s a world a difference between cases brought against independent newspapers like Cumhuriyet and those targeting Gülen-linked media such as Zaman. Before Gülen and Erdoğan fell out in 2013, the two men were allies; Gülen-linked newspapers backed Erdoğan, often expressing support for the government’s attempts to prosecute critical journalists.

Thus, among Turkish journalists, the fate of colleagues employed by Gülenist media rarely inspires the same degree of solidarity as those working for Cumhuriyet or other outlets with a long tradition of reporting critically.

Coşkun, too, had little sympathy for Gülenists. But she was quick to point out that not all journalists who worked at Gülen-linked outlets identified with or promoted the reclusive imam’s movement, and even when it comes to those who did, “You can accuse them of bad journalism, not terrorism,” she said.

Among the many low-ranking reporters and junior staff facing charges is Yakup Çetin, a friend of Coşkun’s who formerly covered the courts for Zaman. “We were covering all the trials next to each other,” she said. “We did the same work, covered the same cases.”

Çetin was arrested shortly before the coup, when the government was already cracking down on Gülen-linked media, and charged with membership of a terror organization. The next time she saw him, when he went on trial this spring, she didn’t immediately recognize him.

“He lost so much weight,” she said. “He seemed to have lost hope, as if he knew that he wasn’t going to get released.”

Canan Coşkun | Bradley Secker for POLITICO

“The judicial system is terrible,” says Coşkun. “But you can’t give up trying.” | Bradley Secker for POLITICO

 

BACK IN COURT

dropC2etin’s hearing, Coşkun said, was “one of the darkest trials” of her career. He was being tried alongside 20 others. To the great surprise of the defendants, the court decided to order their release pending trial.

Many of the journalists excitedly called home, asking their relatives to pick them up from prison. But when their families arrived at the jail, it became clear the journalists would not be permitted to set foot outside the prison walls. Within hours, another court had rearrested some of them on new charges and objected to the release of the others.

The judges who had released them were suspended. “That was dark,” Coşkun said. “A nightmare. It’s evil, truly — a practice coming from past coup eras: just when you thought that you were released, you were re-arrested under another charge. It showed that the authorities can exert control over the criminal courts.”

By this point, Coşkun was questioning her future as a journalist. She insisted she was not afraid of ending up in prison like her colleagues — “if that happens, I finally get a holiday,” she joked. But reporting on the recent barrage of media cases had left her feeling powerless.

Since she started covering the courts for Cumhuriyet four years ago, Coşkun has come to feel at home in court, and has occasionally toyed with the idea of training as a lawyer. After her editors were arrested in October, she couldn’t let go of the thought. In spring, she applied for law school.

“It’s not enough anymore to watch and write about injustice. As a lawyer, I can get involved, make a difference in these cases,” she said, sitting in her office at the newspaper’s heavily fortified Istanbul headquarters. Until recently, her desk belonged to Hakan Kara, one of the journalists arrested last fall.

Later this month, Coşkun will learn whether she has been accepted into law school. She is well aware that life as a media lawyer won’t be easy; with judges under pressure to rule in favor of state prosecutors, lawyers are struggling to get their clients out of jail. Several lawyers, including Cumhuriyet’s own Bülent Utku, have ended up in prison themselves.

But that doesn’t put her off. “Yes, the judicial system is terrible, but you can’t give up trying. You have to give a hand to those on the right side,” she said. “That’s why I want to represent Cumhuriyet — if there still is a Cumhuriyet then.”

Her colleague Aydın Engin, a veteran editor and writer who sits across from Coşkun, was supportive of her plans. “One way or another, she’ll end up slaving away in the courtroom for us,” he said, grinning.



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