April 26, 2018 / 4:49 PM / 7 months ago

Facing jail, staff from Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper vow to keep working

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The editor-in-chief of Turkey’s opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper said on Thursday he was unbowed by a government crackdown and would not abandon journalism, a day after a court sentenced him and more than a dozen colleagues to prison on terrorism charges.

FILE PHOTO: Murat Sabuncu, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, is greeted by his friends after being released from the prison in Silivri near Istanbul, Turkey March 10, 2018.ÊREUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir/File Photo

Murat Sabuncu was one of 14 Cumhuriyet staff given sentences ranging from 2-1/2 to 7-1/2 years on charges for supporting the network of a cleric Ankara blames for a 2016 attempted coup. Three other staff members were acquitted.

Prosecutors said the journalists, who denied the charges and were released on bail pending appeal, had used “asymmetric war methods” against President Tayyip Erdogan.

The case has sparked global outrage and is one of several high-profile trials seen as emblematic of the sweeping crackdown since Erdogan announced a state of emergency following the attempted coup.

“As journalists, we will continue to do our tasks, to put up a fight, we will continue to write the truth,” Sabuncu told supporters at a rally outside the Istanbul courthouse where the early parts of his trial took place.

Sabuncu and Ahmet Sik, a prominent journalist and author, received the stiffest sentences.

“The 7-1/2 year sentence has no meaning for me,” Sabuncu said.

The Cumhuriyet, long seen as a thorn in Erdogan’s side, is one of the few remaining outlets critical of the government. Free speech advocacy group Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday ranked Turkey 157 out of 180 countries in its annual ranking of global press freedom, down two spots from last year.

More than 120 journalists have been detained and more than 180 media outlets have been closed down under the state of emergency, rights group Amnesty International said.

‘BEAUTIFUL THING’

Rights groups and Western allies have said media independence is important as Turkey, still under emergency rule, heads into snap elections called by Erdogan on June 24.

Erdogan and his ministers dominated the airwaves in the run-up to a referendum last year in which Turks narrowly backed changing the constitution to give Erdogan more powers.

The media saturation is seen as likely to intensify after the sale this month of broadcaster CNN Turk and other outlets to a company seen as close to Erdogan.

“Unfortunately, there is no justice or judicial system in Turkey right now,” Akin Atalay, the Cumhuriyet’s chairman who was sentenced to seven years and three months, told the rally hours after his release.

Unlike the others, Atalay had been detained for the entire duration of the trial - some 543 days. “Even breathing outside is a very beautiful thing, I tasted that last night,” he said.

Pro-government newspapers largely ignored the verdict. The Cumhuriyet’s main headline was “The Shame of Justice”.

Prosecutors had sought sentences of up to 43 years in jail, charging the newspaper was effectively taken over by supporters of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who denies Ankara’s accusations he was behind the failed coup.

Prosecutors said the newspaper “virtually became a defender and protector” of Gulen’s network as well as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and a far-left group.

Both Sabuncu and Atalay said they could not enjoy their freedom on bail as long as there were others still in jail.

“There are many journalists, academics, lawmakers and enlightened people in jail in Turkey,” Sabuncu said. “It is a saddening situation in terms of freedom of thought, democracy and press freedom.”

Editing by David Dolan and Peter Graff

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