Farce In the Courthouse; Observations from trial of Cumhuriyet Daily
Author and member of Norsk PEN
The court case against journalists and intellectuals in Turkey isn’t just a circus – it marks an end to rule of law and freedom of speech there.
I board a bus outside Adahan Hotel in the center of Istanbul, about to leave the bustling Pera neighborhood to stand in line for one of the most important cases in modern Turkish history, against 17 journalists and employees from the newspaper Cumhuriyet.
I’m one of many international observers and journalists from across Europe who will report back to organizations and media in our respective countries, while showing solidarity with those who have been imprisoned. Representatives have come from PEN International, press organizations, publishing houses, and publishing associations. In front of Caglayan Justice Palace we meet people from consulates and embassies who will also follow the case.
A house divided
Caglayan, which until recently was the world’s largest courthouse, has now been downgraded to second largest: apparently an even bigger one is being built not so far away – right outside Ankara – in order to handle the huge number of arrests (over 40,000) after the dubious attempted coup a year ago.
On Aug. 1, the first court case began against nearly 500 people – one case for all of them. Handcuffed, they make the long walk toward judgement. It’s already been decided they are traitors, at which point it doesn’t matter to the authorities whether they are tried individually or as a mass.
There is an alternative route to Caglayan. Take the metro to the Sisli neighborhood, and you resurface outside one of the city’s biggest shopping centers. This is the new, well-appointed capitalism Erdogan has bet big on during his reign. Stroll around the corner, and you find yourself standing outside the offices of Cumhuriyet. The building is enclosed with steel fences, topped with barbed wire. It looks more like an American embassy than a newspaper’s headquarters. It isn’t clear whether the fortifications are to protect the ones inside, or warn those on the outside.
I stood on the top floor of the building in April 2016. I was there to interview the editor, Can Dündar. We looked out the window together, and he smiled and pointed to where, just a stone’s throw away, the infamous Caglayan Justice Palace loomed. The case again Dündar and his colleague Erdem Gül had just started.
Now Dündar is a refugee in Germany, while still being charged along with 16 of his colleagues from the newspaper. When I met him in April 2016, Dündar didn’t think press freedom in Turkey could get much worse. But it did.
This time I happen to be sitting for five days in the courthouse with Can Dündar’s tough-as-nails wife, Dilek. I call her tough for many reasons, not least because she threw herself at an assassin last year when he tried to shoot her husband. The assassination wasn’t successful, but Can decided to flee the country. Now he’s in Germany, while Dilek is in Turkey, forbidden to leave (the authorities have taken her passport), and their only son Ege is in England, unable to return. It’s a typical picture of today’s divided Turkey. When they are reunited, perhaps democracy can be celebrated again.
“Here you see the traitors”
Cumhuriyet’s offices are located between the courthouse and a graveyard. During the hearing one of the defendants pointed out that the newspaper staff was always under pressure: judgement in this life and the next hung over their heads.
As one walks past Cumhuriyet, down the street, the giant silhouette of Caglayan emerges. Built in earth-colored stone, it seems as dense and impenetrable as the reality of so-called justice in today’s Turkey.
On July 24, we arrive in the morning and are met with hundreds of protestors outside the courthouse, calling for freedom and justice. When employees from Cumhuriyet arrive with a huge banner, there are calls for solidarity and support.
But the audacity of the ever-present ruling party knows no bounds. A female reporter from one of the many Erdogan-approved TV stations stands in front of the group and starts a direct broadcast to millions of viewers at home across the country: “Here you see the traitors from the newspaper Cumhuriyet,” she declares. Supporters quietly ask her to find somewhere else to stand, and she is led away.
Even journalists in today’s Turkey have sunk so low that they make judgements based on the “sultan’s” speeches, and not the rationality of the justice system. They don’t believe in it either.
From editor to prison librarian
I highlight July 24 in particular because it was not just a regular day. It is Turkey’s national Press Freedom Day, established in 1908 when the Sultan was pressured to do so during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. It shows a certain arrogance that the state chose this date for what seems to be the beginning of the end of press freedom in modern Turkey.
On the last day of the trial, the judge announced the next hearing would be Sept. 11. The symbolism continues – from Press Freedom Day to the anniversary of when global terror emerged.
It’s chaotic outside the courthouse. Taking part in Turkish court cases is its own sport, and since this one is particularly incendiary, everyone wants to join in. Outside the barriers blocking courtroom 27 there are hundreds of people who want to attend, but the hall only has space for 75.
There is no rhyme or reason to the queue; everyone pushes to get in. The power of a well-placed elbow reigns.
Nevertheless, the security guards try to make some kind of order, letting lawyers in first, then family, then journalists and observers. But in here the chaos is a fact of life, since there’s no space once the lawyers and family have taken their seats. As we stand and push for an hour, we’re overcome by the insults, screaming, and loud cries of those who don’t make it inside.
I had taken part before, so this time I had allies: the family of a defendant, Turhan Günay, editor of Cumhuriyet’s book magazine. The magazine comes out once a week, and is quite popular throughout Turkey, with readership well above the newspaper’s typical numbers.
Günay is a real book lover – when he was sent to the infamous Silivri Prison, the first thing he did was complain there was no library there. Within a few weeks he managed to get permission from the administration to start a book collection, and began a lending system for the inmates. During the nine months he has waited for his case to come up, people have sent around 9,000 books from all over Turkey. You can send an intellectual to prison, but his values cannot be chained.
Charged with writing
This time the judge is friendly. Not only does he let in 75 people, for whom there are seats, but also an additional 50 people, including us. We find places squeezed together on chairs or standing packed like sardines against the wall. Luckily the 1,100 lawyers in this case are not all present, or there wouldn’t be space at all. But that number says something about how important the case is. Three of the 17 defendants are in fact themselves lawyers, associated with Cumhuriyet only as board members. It’s not just journalists who are indicted in Turkey.
It is a strange way to pass the summer, sitting in a Turkish courthouse for a whole week. Some nights we sit until 9 or 10 at night before the judge finishes up for the day.
The case against Cumhuriyet is unusual. For one thing, the newspaper is one of the oldest in the country, dating back to the republic’s first year, 1923. It has survived coups and court cases and arrests for nearly 100 years, and is known for being critical and independent of state power.
Secondly, the accused are some of Turkey’s most important journalistic voices and commentators, and have been so for years: Journalist and author Ahmet Şık. Editors-in-chief Can Dündar and Murat Sabuncu (who took over after Dündar. Journalist and author Kadri Gürsel. Book editor Turhan Günay. Illustrator Musa Kart.
And finally, maybe most importantly: there is nothing in the 368-page court report pointing to anything other than articles and editorial choices at the newspaper. They are charged with “supporting terrorist organizations without being members.” Since we’re in Turkey, that means organizations the government has declared to be terrorists: PKK (the Kurdish guerilla group), and the Gülen movement founded by Fetullah Gülen.
Europe-Turkey relations hang in the balance
There are two concrete examples of how hair-raising these charges are: Ahmet Şık is known for being one of the sharpest critics of the Gülen movement, even having written a book about it. Kadri Gürsel, also a journalist and author, was held prisoner by the PKK in the 1990s, and has written a book about it since then. Now both are accused of supporting these organizations.
Kadri Gürsel was also clearly arrested in order to ensure that he stayed silent in advance of the vital vote on consolidation of power in April. Gürsel has criticized Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style since 2009, writing for example about how Erdogan seeks to be a kind of patriarchal father figure for the Turkish people.
Now, in his defense statement, Gürsel gets to the heart of why they are all there: “I do not stand before you today because I ‘supported a terrorist organization without being a member.’ It is because I am an independent, critical journalist who asks questions; because I have never compromised in my work; because I always insist on doing my job properly.”
The court case is also crucial for how Europe will relate to Turkey in the future. That’s why media from most European countries are here, and several representatives from the European Parliament are attending. If the journalists and affiliates of the newspaper are sentenced, it will mark an end to rule of law and freedom of speech in Turkey, and Europe will have to react with immediate condemnation. It will be impossible for Europe to have the same relationship to Turkey if Cumhuriyet is convicted.
The circus and the sham democracy
The political high point of the week was Ahmet Şık’s two-hour defense statement. It was a lesson in political history met with rousing support and jubilation from the assembly, until the judge managed to quiet everyone down again.
The speech made such an impression on the prosecutor that by the end of the case on Friday, he had brought a new charge – again Şık’s defense statement.
Absurdity reached new heights when the defendants had to explain phone calls which the chief investigator found “suspicious.” The defendants explained one conversation was with a travel agency, where one of the employees had booked a summer vacation last year, while the other “suspicious” phone call was to a pizza shop around the corner – they had ordered food for an evening meeting. The indictment is full of these meaningless allegations, along with slander and misinformation, written badly and in an imprecise manner.
For example, one of the imprisoned board members pointed out that in the indictment he is said to have three roles at the newspaper, none of which he occupies. He couldn’t even figure out what he was charged with, because the case report was so badly written he couldn’t understand
what was being said. “What am I supposed to defend myself against?” he asked. “Can you tell me?”
As the days pass, the whole thing seems more like a parody. Both the judge and the prosecutor sit and fidget. There is something bizarre about a court case where everything seems formal and organized, but where it’s so obvious that nothing is quite right. The procedures take place the way they should in a democracy, everyone has their assigned places, dressed the part. And at the same time, everyone knows this is just political theater. No one sitting there has any influence on the case’s outcome.
Father figure wanted
There is no longer an independent court in Turkey. The original prosecutor, who wrote the actual indictment, has been accused of supporting the Gülen movement. The judge standing before us knows if he is too indulgent, he could be next.
Anyone can be accused at any time. Everyone is suspicious and can be arrested. The borders demarcated by prison walls are flimsy, permeable.
I always have a book with me. This time it was Kanskje det ennå finnes en åpen plass i verden (Perhaps there is still an open space in the world), by my former colleague at University of Oslo, Wencke Mühleisen. It is about her life in the AAO commune in Austria, and the story of her father’s life as a soldier in Nazi Germany.
I grabbed the book for boring periods during the court case. Little did I know it would be relevant for what was happening around me. The parallels struck me as I read about how one of the foremost initiatives for freedom in the 1970s ended up as a fascist organization in line with Hitler’s Germany. The combination of cowardice and the need for a “strong man” ran through both social experiments.
Here in Turkey there was also talk about cowardice, along with calls for a strong man to steer the country. Just like Hitler and Otto Muehl (from AAO), Erdogan is a charismatic deceiver. He perceives the people he talks to, knows their psychology, and leads them slowly but surely away from democracy and into an authoritarian regime.
When will both men and woman cast off this need for a leader? When will we see that these old men are demented, dangerous narcissists? The open forums of the world seem to be shriveling, and we cannot accept it.
The madness continues
Much of the excitement in the last two days of the case was connected to how many of the detainees would be released. Everyone knew there wouldn’t be a judgement in the trial – it would simply be postponed. That’s how it is with most of these cases: they last for years, and the accused journalists, authors, and academics meet periodically for new hearings. The first case I
followed here a few years ago was against a Kurdish academic, and it’s still not done. The case against the Altan brothers a month ago was also postponed. It’s an effective way for the system to hold people in check.
That’s why the excitement was about which of the eleven would be set free, or if they would simply have to wait for judgement. Since Erdogan has the country in a state of emergency, he can do as he wishes.
When the defense attorneys are finished, the judge gives the floor to the prosecutor, who asks for a break before he comes with his final statement. After 20 minutes he comes back, saying no evidence has weakened the charges, and the case will continue. He recommends that five of the accused be set free.
It’s much more than anyone expected, and immediately afterward the judge announces seven of the accused should be set free, while four will have to cool their heels in jail. Nevertheless, the courtroom erupts in shouts and tears, both from happiness and frustration over the madness that seems to have no end.
Before the four are taken away, Ahmet Şık turns to the assembly and yells, “This verdict here today says, ‘We will make you kneel.’ This rotten group of armed men and dishonorable tyrants should know that up until today I only bow my head to kiss the hands of my Mum and Dad, and it will be the same after today!”
Then he and the three others are taken away by around 50 police, to the sound of supporter’s chants and calls.
Güray Öz, Bülent Utku, Turhan Günay, Mustafa Kemal Güngör, Musa Kart, Hakan Karasinir and Önder Celik were released Friday night. The four who must wait are Ahmet Şık, Murat Sabuncu, Kadri Gürsel and Akin Atalay. The next hearing is Sept. 11.