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Turkish Journalists Say Free Press Under Fire And EU's Not Helping

  • Daniella Cheslow

Critics say the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) is mounting a widespread clampdown on the freedom of the country's press. (file photo)

Critics say the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) is mounting a widespread clampdown on the freedom of the country's press. (file photo)

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Turkish TV news anchor Banu Guven said watching her president get grilled on press freedom by CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour hours earlier evoked a sense of schadenfreude.

"It was an amazing experience to see President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan so polite this time," Guven said. "In Turkey, journalists who would ask him those kinds of questions wouldn't be able to have the opportunities to interview him at all."

Guven was speaking outside the trial on April 1 of Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, two high-profile Turkish journalists facing possible life sentences for an exposé on Turkey's alleged smuggling of arms to Syria. Local media say Dundar and Gul's case is the most extreme example of a widespread crackdown on a free press.

Dundar, the editor in chief of the opposition Cumhuriyet daily, and Gul, its Ankara bureau chief, published a story in May that claimed that Turkish intelligence was disguising arms as humanitarian aid in a truck en route to Syria. The story suggested that Turkey has been backing rebels with links to the radical Islamist group Islamic State (IS).

Erdogan denied the claim and said the truck was transporting humanitarian supplies to Turkomans in Syria. He accused the two journalists of espionage and they were detained for 92 days before their trial began in late March. In an unusual move, the court proceedings have been sealed to all but lawyers for Dundar and Gul.

'War With The Press'

Last week, CNN interviewer Amanpour told Erdogan, "I don't understand...why you have gone to war with your press." He replied, "I'm not at war with the press."

"My country has laws in place," Erdogan added. "If a member of the press or an executive of a newspaper [is] engaging in espionage, disclosing a country's secrets to the rest of the world, and if this conduct becomes a part of a litigation, a litigation will result in a verdict."

Guven was among hundreds of lawyers, journalists, parliamentarians, and sympathizers who milled in the hallway outside the closed courtroom.

She said she felt the ire of Erdogan's government while interviewing the two accused journalists on her TV news program hours after they were released from custody in February. During the interview, Guven's IMC TV channel was abruptly pulled off satellite broadcaster Turksat. She said the state prosecutor had requested that Turksat stop broadcasting her TV news two days before -- but the yank was unannounced.

"The EU must be well aware of the situation of the press here in Turkey," she said.

Turkish anchorwoman Banu Guven at the trial of her fellow journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, who face possible life sentences on espionage charges.

Turkish anchorwoman Banu Guven at the trial of her fellow journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, who face possible life sentences on espionage charges.

Istanbul lawyer Serap Demirtas accused the EU of hypocrisy.

"I believe they are the community of renaissance and reforms," she said. "But with the recent events of the refugees, they prove their hypocrisy.... They are bribing us to keep the refugees in our country."

Bulent Kenes, who founded the English-language Today's Zaman in 2007, said he was working as a columnist at the newspaper's office on the night of March 4, when hundreds of police officers raided it, using water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters. He and other staff were dismissed the next day.

Kenes had served a 21-month suspended jail sentence over insulting Erdogan on Twitter.

"I couldn't concentrate on my duty because every day, every week I had a testimony at the police station, a testimony in the prosecutor's office," he said.

As his trial continues, Kenes said the government had confiscated his passport. Colleagues who were ousted from the Turkish-language Zaman Daily have started a new newspaper called Yarina Bakis, or Look to Tomorrow, but Kenes has not visited its offices because he fears he could incriminate his friends.

Twitter Takedowns

Eylem Yanardagoglu, deputy dean of the Department of New Media at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said that the Turkish government and press have had a tortured relationship since the Gezi Park protests, a wave of civil unrest that erupted in May 2013 over a plan to convert an open space in central Taksim Square into a mall and luxury apartments. Thousands of Turks demonstrated nationwide against increasing government repression, and police reacted with tear gas, water cannons, and pepper spray, injuring thousands.

At the time, Yanardagoglu said, the government ordered cellular data cut off to mobile phones. Mainstream Turkish TV stations did not cover the protests, she said, pushing demonstrators to rely on foreign reports and social media.

A Twitter report showed that Turkey issued 450 court orders to remove content from the site in 2015, accounting for 93 percent of all such requests worldwide.

Dundar and Gul maintain their innocence. Their next hearing will be on April 22. Dundar's son Ege, 21, said at the court that his father was holding up to the pressure well. He said he enjoyed the opportunity to reconnect over films and poetry.

Some Turks say Erdogan's pressure tactics are appropriate.

In the Kasimpasa neighborhood of Istanbul where Erdogan grew up, photographer Soner Avcioglu, 55, stepped away from a dominoes table and said the trial against Dundar and Gul was justified.

"All the big powers in the world, they send weapons to a lot of countries, to a lot of war zones," Avcioglu said. "We can do it as well, and the [Turkish] central intelligence agency does not have to disclose it."

He said reports like Dundar's gave fuel to Turkey's enemies. On April 1, Russian United Nations Ambassador Vitaly Churkin accused Turkish foundations of supplying $1.9 billion worth of military assistance to IS members in Syria, via Turkish intelligence.

A Turkish spokesman told the AP news agency that Russia's letter was "an attempt to overshadow the civilian deaths, havoc, and destruction in Syria caused by the military operations of the Russian Federation, the regime's staunchest ally."

Erdogan's hard line on the press has extended to Germany. He demanded that German broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk take offline a satirical film that mocks Erdogan as "The Boss From The Bosphorus."

WATCH: "The Boss From The Bosphorus" (NDR TV)

Editor Andreas Lange said there was no chance he would remove the film.

"Merkel needs Erdogan in the refugee crisis and obviously accepts a [partial] lack of democracy in Turkey," he wrote RFE/RL in an e-mail.

Yanardagoglu said she thought the film was "brilliant."

"I laughed a lot when I watched it," she said. "But also, it's kind of embarrassing."