Friday 25 March was a bleak day for journalism, the rule of law and the public’s right to know, when an Istanbul court ruled that the entire trial of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül should be held behind closed doors. Earlier scores of their supporters turned up to the court to show their solidarity with the two journalists who face charges of espionage, aiding a terrorist organisation, disclosing classified documents and reporting the supply of weapons to rebels in Syria by the Turkish security services. They could face life imprisonment if found guilty. The case resumes on 1 April.
As we gathered outside the courtroom, proceedings were suddenly switched to another court room on the floor below, which had more space. However it still could not accommodate us all and I finally got a place in the court some 30 minutes after the proceedings had started.
There were two issues that needed to be sorted out before the trial proper could begin. President Erdogan and the MIT (the National Intelligence Agency) had asked to be legally represented at the hearings. Even more disturbing, but not surprising, was a request from the new prosecutor, who had be given the case just two days ago, that the hearings be held in secret as classified documents were involved and members of the security services might be called as witnesses.
At 11.30 am the three male judges retired to consider the applications. Half an hour later they returned to announce that they had granted both requests. The decision was greet with boos and cat calls from the public who had managed to get in. We were then told to leave before further proceedings could take place.
Foreign diplomats, observers from foreign press freedom organisations and NGOs, some deputies from the Turkish parliament along with other members of the public left the court room, many at a snail’s pace, much to the annoyance of the court officials. Before leaving I spoke to Can saying that we in the IFJ/EFJ were with them ‘all the way’.
Our hosts in Istanbul, the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) had hired a lawyer, whom we met the night before, to represent the union’s interests in the case. He was also told by the Court that he could not attend any further hearings. However he was able to report that both defendants were allowed to leave the court following the earlier ruling by the Turkish Constitutional Court on 26 February that they should be released after 92 days imprisonment, despite Presidents Erdogan’s outburst at the decision that he ‘did not respect the Constitutional Court ruling’ and that they might be returned to prison (see earlier blog reporting their release). Those fears are unfounded for the moment.
The next day I read in the English language paper, Huyyiyet Daily News, that some deputies had refused to leave the court room after their request to follow the hearings was rejected by the judges. The court then decided to file a criminal complaint against them for ‘obstructing justice’.
The evening before the trial national and international media unions and professional organisations held a press conference in Istanbul to demand freedom of information and freedom of journalists. International organisations explained the actions they had taken and how they would continue to support the campaign for journalists and press freedom. Can and Erdem also spoke. In my contribution I quoted a letter from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office on actions the UK government had taken with the Turkish authorities over the need for press freedom and other human rights (see my blog ‘Can Dündar and Erdem Gül: the Foreign Office expresses concern’).
I concluded by saying that ‘There are those in this society who promote fear as a tool of censorship and repression. Let us counter that with hope which is the fuel of progress and remember that fear is the prison in which we put ourselves.’
And please sign the petition for press freedom in Turkey at: http://europeanjournalists.org/blog/2016/03/24/turkish-journalists-campaign-for-press-freedom-sign-the-petition/
I visited Istanbul together with Mehmet Koksal IFJ/EFJ Project Organiser between 24 and 26 March. Special thanks to Mehmet for organising everything.