Murat Sabuncu, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, smiles after being released from the prison complex in Silivri, Turkey in March. A Turkish court sentenced Murat Sabuncu along with journalists and other senior newspaper officials to terrorist attacks Wednesday. (Cemil Özdemir / AP)
ISTANBUL – A Turkish court on Wednesday imposed jail sentences against a group of journalists and collaborators working for a Turkish opposition newspaper on terrorist allegations, in a case that has attracted attention by erosion press freedom under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Fourteen of the defendants who work for Cumhuriyet, one of the oldest newspapers in Turkey, were sentenced to imprisonment of up to 7½ years. The defendants were released until appealed. Three more employees were acquitted.
The journalists were arrested in the months following a coup attempt in 2016, in which the authorities accused Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish exiled cleric in the United States. Thousands of people accused of helping the putschists were arrested or fired from government jobs. However, the authorities also focused on opposition politicians, journalists and dissidents who were not involved in the coup, human rights officials said.
Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup attempt.
Cumhuriyet lawyers accused of helping terrorist organizations called the charges groundless and said they came from the newspaper's frequent opposition to Erdogan's government. The newspaper, which is linked to the Turkish majority opposition, often criticized Gülen and his followers.
The press said the persecution of the newspaper's staff was part of a broader attack on the news media by the Turkish authorities, which included the closure of independent news agencies, the arrest of journalists and the consolidation of media among pro-governmental owners.
Can Atalay, an attorney for Ahmet Sik, one of the journalists in court, said the harsh judgments had been a surprise, if only because they outdid prison sentences handed down in other cases to actual members of the Gülen movement. Those convicted on Wednesday included cartoonist Musa Kart and Aydin Engin, a 78-year-old columnist.
"This part is incomprehensible," Atalay said in a video interview published on Cumhuriyet's website. "This is not a constitutional state."
The judgments could, at a critical moment, have a deterrent effect on the news media as Turkey heads towards elections in late June that could give Erdogan more powers.
"To make journalism in Turkey under these circumstances – just to spread the news, just to arrange a front page, just to make a headline – will be much more difficult than yesterday," said Atalay.