Rights Activists Criticize Trial of 17 Reporters in Turkey

20 June, 2017

A trial of 17 journalists opened this week at a courthouse in Istanbul.

The writers and media workers are accused of involvement in the failed attempt last July to overthrow Turkey's government.

The defendants face long jail sentences, of up to life in prison, if they are found guilty.

A journalist poses with a portrait of Turkish journalist Ahmet Altan, June 19, 2017, in front of the Istanbul courthouse, where his trial is to take place.
A journalist poses with a portrait of Turkish journalist Ahmet Altan, June 19, 2017, in front of the Istanbul courthouse, where his trial is to take place.

The first hours of the trial on Monday were spent reading from more than 200 pages of charges.

Government lawyers say the journalists are followers of the Turkish Islamic religious leader Fethullah Gulen. The government blames Gulen for the overthrow attempt. He now lives in the United States.

Much of the evidence noted by government lawyers did not deal with the journalists' activities, but with their suspected ties to the clergyman.

Gulen has denied involvement in the attempted coup.

Nazli Ilicak writes a newspaper column. She rejected the government's charges. Ilicak told the court that she was a supporter of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before he came to power. She added that she opposed coups. She noted that her father had been jailed after the military seized control of the government in 1960.

Ilicak and the brothers Mehmet Altan and Ahmet Altan are among the most famous writers and journalists facing charges. They have been critics of Erdogan's government.

All 17 reporters have been detained for months.

Even before the trial opened, international observers criticized the quality of the evidence being presented.

The media rights group Reporters Without Borders strongly criticized the case. It said, "This trial marks a new level in the growing absurdity of the charges being brought against journalists."

Many international and Turkish human rights groups sent representatives to the trial on Monday.

Milena Buyum of Amnesty International spoke after the first day of hearings. She said, "...People are really facing serious charges, with potentially three life sentences on the basis of very, very little evidence of criminal acts, and that's really worrying."

Human rights groups accuse Turkey of jailing more journalists than any country in the world. They say more than 170 reporters and media workers have been imprisoned since the failed coup attempt.

Emma Sinclair Webb is a researcher with the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch. She said, "A very legitimate task of trying to bring coup plotters to justice has been completely lost in a mass purge of those the government does not like."

The Turkish president dismissed criticism of the trial during a speech to national media leaders on Saturday.

Erdogan said that only two of the 177 people who have been identified as journalists have documents showing they work for the press. He said one of the people is in jail for murder and the others for involvement in terrorist organizations.

Last month, Erdogan warned that the current state of emergency put in place after the coup would not end because of terrorist threats and economic problems.

The head of the Turkish Press Council, Pinar Turenc, expressed support for the jailed reporters. "The jailed journalists are inside because of their journalistic activities, because they chase the news, because they chase the truth," she said.

But rights groups are warning that journalists may not chase after the news when they see so many journalists on trial.

"It sends a message to the rest of society, to other journalists, expressing your opinion, being critical of power," noted Amnesty's Milena Buyum.

The Associated Press estimates that about 50,000 people have been arrested after the failed coup. It also notes that about 150 media organizations have been closed.

I'm Mario Ritter.

Dorian Jones reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter adapted his report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

journalist – n. a person who collects, writes or edits news stories for the media

coup – n. a sudden attempt by a small group of people, or military leaders, to take over a government usually through force

absurdity – n. something that makes no sense

hearing – n. a meeting in which evidence is given and arguments are made

purge – n. to remove people from a group, organization or government

legitimate adj. fair or reasonable

page – n. a document; part of a book, newspaper or magazine

column – n. a commentary or political opinion piece

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