14:16, July 24 63 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-24 14:16:03
The Guardian view on Turkish press freedom: standing up for democracy

Putting journalists on trial for doing their job, for informing the public or conveying opinion, is never acceptable. Like the canary in the mine, journalists can serve as an early alert to the erosion of the rights of every citizen. Where media freedom is curtailed other freedoms invariably follow. This may be stating the obvious, especially to those of us who enjoy the liberty and protection of democracy. But it is not an uncontested truth.

Freedom of the press is restricted wherever governments claim its exercise might run counter to political imperatives or what they define as national security. It is a freedom enshrined in UN texts, but it is far from universally recognised as a basic right. It might be tolerated, but only within boundaries subject to whim, in jeopardy whenever those in power feel their interests might be threatened.

Totalitarian regimes (think North Korea) make no claim to upholding media freedom – they don’t even bother. But semi-dictatorships do pay lip service, at least formally. Regimes that claim to be democracies, and hold elections, often also work methodically to undermine the fundamental tenets of government by the people and for the people; essential pillars, like freedom of information, are gradually dismantled. Turkey today provides a strong example of just this pattern of behaviour.

On Monday, 17 journalists and executives of the independent newspaper Cumhuriyet were put on trial in Istanbul for no other reason than having done their jobs: for writing articles, publishing pictures, using social media, or even just making phone calls. Cumhuriyet is a flagship media organisation, Turkey’s oldest daily, founded in 1924 shortly after Ataturk took power. It is the same age as the Republic and it is deeply committed to its founding promise of pluralism, minority rights, peace with the Kurds and investigating corruption; and it has been a harsh critic of Turkey’s slide to autocracy in recent years.

It includes some of the best known and respected names in Turkish media, such as the columnist Kadri Gursel, the editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, the cartoonist Musa Kart and the investigative reporter Ahmet Sik. On Monday they were all in court, charged with having links to various terrorist groups. They face prison sentences of up to 43 years. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, wants to crush this newspaper, just as he is ruthlessly stamping out dissent everywhere that he suspects it exists. Since last year’s failed coup attempt, 160 journalists have been detained across Turkey, and more than 150 media outlets shut down. At the Hamburg G20 earlier this month, Mr Erdoğan warned that journalists “also committed crimes” and needed to be punished. No evidence has been produced against these journalists to suggest terrorist connections. Cumhuriyet is a symbol of fearless journalism and its staff should be honoured, not treated as criminals.

Mr Erdoğan may seem impervious to external pressure, but Europe could shout louder. As one of the defendants, Kadri Gursel, told the court on Monday: “I am not here because I knowingly and willingly helped a terrorist organisation, but because I am an independent, questioning and critical journalist.” It’s not too late for retreat, even as the country lurches ever more towards dictatorship: the journalists must be set free. The Guardian stands in solidarity with Cumhuriyet.