Turkey Seeks 3 Life Sentences For 30 Journalists

Turkey’s prosecutors seek 3 life sentences and 15 years in additional prison sentence for reporters and columnists of now-defunct Zaman daily, Turkey’s once largest newspaper, for attempting coup and for building and managing a terror group.

On Tuesday, an Istanbul prosecutor presented a 64-page indictment to the court as part of a counter-terrorism investigation into the newspaper which was taken over by the government on March 4, 2016. One week after a failed July 15 coup, the newspaper was among the 180 media outlets shut down by authorities.

The severity of the accusations and the punishment prosecutors seek portends a dark picture for Turkey’s already gutted media landscape, as journalism faces an existential crisis.

The accusations are pretty severe. Prosecutor Ismet Bozkurt accuses 30 members — writers, editors, and columnists — of Zaman daily, former flagship media outlet of the Gulen movement, of attempting coup against the government, being members of a terrorist organization, taking part in illegal armed activities and attempting to dismantle constitutional order.

Two of them, attempting to a coup and membership of the terrorist group — stand out as the central accusations in a trial against the journalists.

The language of the indictment and the nature of charges reveal that lines between counter-terrorism matters and freedom of expression have dramatically disappeared and become thinner to the detriment of media freedom.

The trial against journalists reveals a rotten judicial system where members of judiciary see no problem in trying media members within the scope of vaguely defined counter-terrorism laws.

Of 30 defendants in the Zaman trial, 21 of them are currently in prison. In addition to owner and once directors of Zaman Media Group, there are well-known writers and columnists from different corners of the political spectrum who wrote for the Zaman daily, which reached to more than 1 million circulations at its peak in the late 2000s.

Sahin Alpay, Ali Bulac, Mumtazer Turkone, Ahmet T. Alkan, Nuriye Akman, Mustafa Unal and Lale Sariibrahimoglu, all of whom have different backgrounds, face 3 life sentences for attempting a coup against the government. But the coup charges against journalists seem to be misplaced and hardly to be substantiated from the legal point of view.

They are also separately accused of being members of an armed terrorist organization and face a 15-year prison sentence if convicted.

Last week, the 25th High Criminal Court judges ruled to release 21 journalists in a separate trial but the verdict was reversed after a concerted social media campaign from journalists strongly affiliated with the government.

The journalists tried in Zaman case have yet to appear at a court hearing. But with the completion of the indictment, they are expected to defend themselves against the charges in the upcoming weeks or days.

Prosecutor Bozkurt cited tweets, columns written decades ago, or several years ago, that what he claims “contain pro-military signals” or cryptic coup messages.

The indictment weaves through the history of Gulen movement and its thrust to the media world, its evolving media strategies after its relationship with AKP government morphed from a benign, cordial partnership to mutual hostility.

It cites 2013 as the pivotal year for the eventual fallout between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and Gulen movement. But the indictment harks back to 1979 as the beginning of the formation of Gulen-linked media with launching a monthly magazine on culture and science.

Historical analysis of Gulen movement in the indictment resembles an op-ed analysis rather than a legal document. It befalls on the prosecutor to corroborate or substantiate the charges but what he provided was a collection of tweets, articles, and reports that supposed to serve as evidence.

For the prosecutor, Zaman’s ground-breaking move to go online in 1995 as first Turkish newspaper launching a website was a deliberative move to expand propaganda of the organization on the internet.

The indictment accused Zaman of running stories critical of the government, portraying them as a systematic campaign to undercut the government, efforts it says could not be considered within the sphere of media freedom.

The indictment delves into dozens of matters irrelevant to coup-related charges. Among different subjects, for instance, the indictment mentioned about Mr. Gulen’s friendship with former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Morton Abramowitz and his meeting with former Pope II. John Paul. It accused Zaman of using these meetings and contacts as part of a public relations campaign and propaganda to bolster its public image.

The prosecutor cited a 2011-dated article of veteran columnist Ali Unal as the first threat of Zaman against then-Prime Minister Erdogan after growing rift on some political matters. Mr. Unal’s warning against Erdogan over abuse of his office, his call on Mr. Erdogan to be receptive to criticism from friends rather than seeking unquestioned loyalty from his constituency was presented as evidence by the prosecutor.

The indictment also, based on revelations of former Zaman Editor Huseyin Gulerce and another Mr. Gulen’s lieutenant who defected from Gulen movement, claimed that Mr. Gulen involved in the running of the newspaper on a daily basis with extensive micromanagement. To corroborate this, however, the prosecutor did not employ fact-checking or verifying the above-mentioned figures’ claims from other sources given that their alignment with President Erdogan cast doubt on the objectivity of their claims.

The trial process flips the very premise of modern justice on its head, contravenes the right to proper defense, fair trial and other tenets of criminal justice proceedings.

In Turkey’s increasingly rotten judicial system, the burden of proof falls on the accused, not on the accuser; a startling factor that describes arduous challenges the defendant faces in its ordeal to prove his/her innocence.

Representing a sharp reversal, presumption of innocence replaced with the presumption of guilt, as authorities call on citizens to prove their innocence during trials.

The Zaman indictment represents a new low in government’s unrelenting subversion of the judiciary given the nature of politically-motivated charges, the severity of punishment sought, and trial of journalists with counter-terrorism laws.

The removal of judges who moved to release 21 journalists in a separate case last week was the final blow to judicial independence, a public display of political influence and control over the judiciary. It portended a bleak picture for a fair trial of the journalists in Zaman case.

What is more jarring than that is 3 life sentences for journalists over their articles will be a disheartening, disconcerting message to anyone who aspires to be a journalist in this country.

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