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Trial Opens For Opposition Journalists In Turkey


In Turkey, the purge continues. This week, it's journalists in the courtroom who are facing charges. And this is what it sounded like outside.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

MARTIN: Those are the voices of protesters chanting, quote, "don't be silent. We have a right to a free press." Seventeen staffers at one of the country's oldest newspapers are standing trial. It's all part of the purge that has gone on in Turkey since the failed coup attempt a year ago. The country continues in a state of emergency. NPR's Lauren Frayer is in Istanbul reporting on all this. Hi, Lauren.


MARTIN: Who's on trial, and what are the charges exactly?

FRAYER: Well, these are staffers from the Cumhuriyet newspaper. It's nearly a century old. There are several reporters, a cartoonist, the editor of the newspaper's weekly book review, also an accountant for the paper. Another defendant, a playwright and longtime columnist who's 76 years old. They were all arrested last October. Police showed up at their homes very early in the morning, hauled them - hauled them away. Twelve of them have been jailed ever since. And they're charged with writing things that help groups the Turkish government considers terrorists. Predominantly, the movement of Fethullah Gulen. He's a cleric who lives in the United States. The Turkish government claim - blames his followers for last year's failed coup here. He denies that. And these newspaper employees face up to 43 years in prison if convicted on what are terrorism charges.

MARTIN: So you've been talking to protesters there. What are they saying about this?

FRAYER: Free press advocates have traveled to Istanbul this week from around the world to observe this trial and also protest outside. They say journalists are getting caught up in what is a political purge here and that's not fair. Here's one of the demonstrators, a journalist named Banu Guven, who has some personal experience with this.

BANU GUVEN: The TV channel I was working for was closed last October. We were being accused of endangering the national security. So from then on, I'm doing my job as a freelancer, but it's becoming more and more difficult or almost impossible in Turkey. There are only a few independent newspapers left. Cumhuriyet is one of them, and they're also dealing with financial problems.

FRAYER: As she points out, a lot of independent media here losing ad revenue. You know, nobody wants to invest in them if they could be shut down at any moment. And rights groups say the Turkish government has jailed more than 150 journalists in the past year or so. And, by the way, I should say, this is not just journalists. I mean, Amnesty International Workers have been arrested here in recent weeks. One of them is a German citizen, and so his arrest has caused a bit of a diplomatic row with Germany.

MARTIN: So governments that tend to crack down on civil society groups, including journalists, tend to wrap all of it in national security concerns. Is that what's happening here? I mean, how's the government justifying this?

FRAYER: Absolutely. The government says this is all necessary for really the survival of the country, which was severely threatened by this coup attempt last summer. The country's been under a state of emergency ever since. And President Erdogan is popular. I mean, he has support from many Turks who are willing to sacrifice some freedoms for a guarantee of stability.

MARTIN: Of course, all this means that these journalists are getting pressure. I imagine there's a chilling effect, so Turks aren't exactly getting a clear picture of what's happening within their own government.

FRAYER: It means that freedom of the press has really been limited here. I mean, press advocacy groups say they're worried. And they say, you know, for every Turkish journalist who loses his or her job and is jailed, there may be another who puts down their pen voluntarily. The threat of arrest can be pretty intimidating. Turkish journalists are joining foreign media outlets if they can if they speak English or another foreign language well enough. Others are moving into exile. The former editor in chief of Cumhuriyet lives in Germany now.

MARTIN: NPR's Lauren Frayer reporting from Istanbul. Lauren, thanks so much.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.