ISTANBUL - Turkey's press freedom record is under international scrutiny with the resumption of the trial of journalists and executives of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, widely seen as the last mainstream newspaper critical of the president and his government. The case is part of an ongoing crackdown after last year's failed coup.
Outside Istanbul's main courthouse Tuesday, a speaker addressing a crowd of press freedom supporters defiantly declared journalists will neither remain silent nor submit until the release of their colleagues.
Seventeen journalists, lawyers, executives, and the cartoonist for the Cumhuriyet newspaper are facing sentences of up to 43 years in jail on terrorism charges. The defendants are accused of being linked to the group Ankara blames for last year's failed coup. Numerous journalists have been arrested and media organizations shut down in the ongoing post-coup crackdown.
Point of concern
The Cumhuriyet case has become a focal point of international concern over press freedom, according to International Press Institute President John Yearwood. "Turkey is very wanting when it comes to the freedom of press," he said.
"They have more journalists in jail than any other country in the world," said Yearwood. "Cumhuriyet is the last remaining truly independent publication here in Turkey. If the government can come in and throw its journalists in jail and succeed in its goal of shutting down the newspaper, it would create a huge hole in how people can get information, one, and two, the type of information that they get."
Yearwood and his Austria-based media freedom advocacy group were among many foreign observers, including human rights groups and representatives of the European Union, attending the newspaper's trial. Although the case is nearly a year old, Tuesday was only the fourth day of hearings.
The trial has been criticized for its slow pace, especially as five of the defendants continue to be held in pretrial detention. What observers say is the lack of evidence against the accused has also drawn national and international condemnation.
The government has strongly defended the case, insisting the country continues to face a threat to democracy and that no one is above the law.
But Yearwood warned Turkey will pay a heavy price for such cases against journalists, saying Turkey will continue to "get a black eye, not only in Europe but throughout the rest of the world."
"And we hope that the government here cares about how it is viewed by the rest of the world, particularly if it is trying to be part of the global community," he added. "And so we think that the country should stop throwing journalists in jail. It is reprehensible."
In another case in the same Istanbul courthouse, two journalists were released from months of pretrial detention in an ongoing trial against pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem.
The paper was closed down last year for supporting terrorism. Forty eight newspapers have been closed under emergency rule introduced after last year's failed coup.