Barrage of prison sentences for Cumhuriyet journalists

Update: Cumhuriyet’s chairman Akin Atalay is released after spending 542 days in jail. The court handed down seven years, three months, and 15 days prison sentence to Atalay.


A Turkish court has handed out yet another slew of long prison sentences to journalists, this time to 15 staff from the Turkish broadsheet Cumhuriyet.

The majority of those sentenced will remain in prison after being found guilty of aiding a terrorist organisation, while chairman Akın Atalay will be released having already served 542 days in prison while awaiting trial. Three of the other journalists on trial, Turhan Günay, Bülent Yener and Günseli Özaltay, have been acquitted.

The Cumhuriyet trials began on October 31, when prosecutors began investigating the newspaper for allegedly aiding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish group designated as a terrorist organisation in Turkey, and the Gülen movement, followers of an Islamist preacher accused of plotting the failed July 2016 coup attempt.

One of the 15 sentenced, Ahmet Şık, had ironically already spent a year in prison after writing a book criticising the Gülen movement. "No dictatorship has ever won the battle to silence the righteous," tweeted Şık shortly after the verdict was read.

Şık, as well as journalist Aydın Engin and editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu received seven-and-a-half-year sentences.

Journalists Hikmet Çetinkaya and Orhan Erinç received six years and six months each, while cartoonist Musa Kart and four other Cumhuriyet staff, Güray Öz, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Hakan Kara and Önder Çelik received 45-month sentences.

 Columnist Kadri Gürsel was handed a 30-month sentence.

The court decided to handle files of former editor in chief Can Dundar and Cumhuriyet's former Washington reporter Ilhan Tanir separately since they are not in Turkey.

From the beginning, Turkey’s recent abysmal record on press freedom – which placed it 157th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 freedom of press index – raised strong suspicions that the charges against yet more critical journalists were political.

Cumhuriyet's journalists reacted harshly to the convictions by taking to Twitter. Cumhuriyet's current editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu talking to, stated that he does not recognize the ruling and "the ruling is only to intimidate journalists in Turkey and the case also launched in the first place to intimidate Turkey's journalists." Sabuncu said he will continue journalism and can go back to jail if necessary. Murat Sabuncu, also in a tweet message, said,

The suspicions that the trials were politically motivated were further stoked by the fact that journalists for a secularist, republican newspaper had been charged with aiding two organisations that had historically been opponents of both Cumhuriyet’s political stance and one another.

However, under an authoritarian government further strengthened by the state of emergency in place since shortly after the coup attempt, the trials of some of Turkey’s best-known journalists have become a regular feature of political life - so much so that the Committee to Protect Journalists named Turkey as the world's worst jailer of journalists for the second year in a row in 2017.

Opposition lawmaker Sezgin Tanrikulu said he did not expect a different result from the trial. What the court did, according to former human rights defender, the people's rights to know is convicted. Tanrikulu also added this will be a case in the future as how not to conduct a trial.

Six defendants in another high profile media trial were sentenced to life in prison in February, after being found guilty of acting as the media wing of the Gülen movement. The six included journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, writer Ahmet Altan, and his brother Mehmet Altan, an academic.

Another trial related to the Gülen movement's alleged media wing is underway against former employees of Zaman, a newspaper that the government shut down in March 2016 due to its links to the Islamist preacher. Prosecutors recommended life sentences for journalists, including 74-year-old Şahin Alpay, and staff of the newspaper in April.

The cases against Alpay and Mehmet Altan drew criticism from the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the Turkish judiciary had "explicitly violated" their rights.