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August 8, 2013

Press freedom watchdogs voice alarm at lengthy prison terms for Turkish journalists

By Louise Ashwell

Press freedom groups have expressed concern at jail sentences ranging from six years to life in solitary confinement for 20 Journalists in Turkey.

The sentences came on Sunday at the conclusion of the alleged Ergenekon coup plot trials.

The defendants are accused of colluding with what has been called the Ergenekon underground terrorist network, which the Turkish government claims attempted to organised an armed uprising against the ruling pro-Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The court has not yet explained its verdicts or the sentences, and written verdicts have not yet been published.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) called the convictions “a huge disappointment” and the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the journalists “were convicted on flawed penal and anti-terror laws that conflate news coverage and commentary with terrorism”.

Journalist and former Biz TV owner Tuncay Özkan was given the most severe sentence of life imprisonment for allegedly organising a series of anti-government protests in 2007. According to the International Federation of Journalists, he will be kept in solitary confinement, without chance of a pardon.

Former reporter for the nationalist Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, Mustafa Balbay, received the next highest sentence of 34 years.

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The two journalists have already been detained for five and four years respectively.

A spokesperson for Reporters Without Borders told Press Gazette that the abuse of preventative detention in Turkey was a “huge problem” in the country, and that this trial had been administered poorly “on less and less objective grounds”.

Reporters Without Borders reports that relatives of some of the defendants, including Özkan’s daughter, were denied access to the courtroom on Sunday’s sentencing. The homes of several Turkish journalists were also searched, it said.

European Federation of Journalists Vice President Nadezda Azhgikhina said: “We are deeply alarmed and angry at the severe and unprecedented sentences handed out to many of our colleagues in Turkey, a decision which immeasurably undermines the right to freedom of media and free expression in the country."

The EFJ, together with the International Federation of Journalists, has called on the EU to denounce the rulings by the Turkish authorities.

"Throughout the process we warned that this has become a politically motivated trial," said president of the International Federation of Journalists, Jim Boumelha. "There were so many violations of legal procedure and rights well documented by independent observers, that its credibility came into question. Such long jail terms for journalists who have already spent years in arbitrary preventive detention are unacceptable, and these heavy verdicts confirm the absence of rule of law.”

A CPJ survey last year found that more journalists in Turkey are jailed than anywhere else in the world, with at least 49 country behind bars there in December 2012. 

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