Thousands Protest Arrest of 2 Turkish Journalists on Spying ChargesThe New York Times Company
ISTANBUL — Thousands gathered across Istanbul on Friday to protest the arrest of two prominent journalists on charges of espionage over a report alleging that the country’s intelligence services had sent arms shipments to Islamist rebels in Syria.
A court in Istanbul on Thursday ordered the arrest of Can Dundar, the editor in chief of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, and of Erdem Gul, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, on charges of divulging state secrets and being members of an armed terrorist organization. If found guilty, they would face life imprisonment.
Demonstrations against the arrests were held in several parts of Istanbul, with the main rally held outside the newspaper’s headquarters on Friday, where protesters chanted “shoulder to shoulder against fascism” and held up banners that denounced a “black day for the press.”
The arrests were the latest blow to press freedom in Turkey, after a wave of crackdowns on opposition news media that gained momentum after theJustice and Development Party regained its parliamentary majority in elections this month. The result allowed President Recep Tayyip Erdoganto further secure his grip on power.
Mr. Erdogan personally filed the criminal complaint against Cumhuriyet in June after he delivered an angry speech accusing the newspaper of engaging in acts of espionage and vowing that the author of the story would “pay a heavy price.”
Mr. Dundar and Mr. Gul are also accused of being members of an organization linked to the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999 and whom Mr. Erdogan accuses of trying to topple the government.
Cumhuriyet published an article in May that was accompanied by video showing local authorities seizing crates on the back of a truck. The report said the crates contained weapons linked to the National Intelligence Organization, the Turkish security service, that were bound for Islamist rebels in Syria.
The report emerged at a delicate time, coming a week before the crucial parliamentary election that was seen as a referendum on Mr. Erdogan and his plans to alter the Turkish Constitution to concentrate more powers in an executive presidency.
At the time, Turkey was also facing increased criticism for aiding Islamist militants in Syria — an allegation the government vehemently denies. Turkish officials insisted that the footage published by Cumhuriyet showed humanitarian aid that was bound for the Turkmen population in Syria, which has strong ethnic ties with Turkey.
But recently, Mr. Erdogan has backtracked somewhat on that claim, asking what difference it would make if the truck had been carrying weapons instead of aid.
Before testifying to prosecutors on Thursday, Mr. Dundar rejected the charges against him, saying that his newspaper and its staff members were merely doing their jobs as journalists.
“We are accused of spying and the president has said that our actions are treason,” Mr. Dundar said, speaking outside the Istanbul court on Thursday.
“We are not traitors, spies or heroes; we are journalists,” he said.
The court ruling came just weeks after the European Union delivered a scathing report about Turkey’s attempts to join the block, criticizing Mr. Erdogan for “serious backsliding” on press freedom.
In recent months, opposition news outlets have been shut down; criminal charges have been brought against journalists for insulting the president; and publications have been raided and their content seized.
Mohammed Rasool, a freelance journalist for Vice News who has been accused of assisting a terrorist organization, has been in pretrial detention in a maximum-security prison since August as Turkish authorities decide whether to press charges against him.
Turkey ranks 149th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders news media freedom index. On Tuesday, the organization awarded Cumhuriyet its 2015 Press Freedom Prize for courageous journalism.
Before the court hearing on Thursday, the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, said in a statement, “If these two journalists are imprisoned, it will be additional evidence that the Turkish authorities are ready to use methods worthy of a bygone age in order to suppress independent journalism in Turkey.”