16 April 2019 – As an international delegation from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) looked on, RSF Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu spoke in his own defence before a crowded court in Istanbul yesterday, explaining his fight for press freedom and demanding his acquittal in a trial that has dragged on for more than two and a half years.
Önderoğlu and his two fellow defendants – Şebnem Korur Fincancı, a human rights defender, and Ahmet Nesin, a writer who has fled the country – are facing possible jail sentences when the court finally renders its verdict, which could happen at the next hearing in mid-July.
Many observers, including RSF’s secretary-general and three other RSF representatives, packed the court for yesterday’s hearing in a show of support for the three press freedom defenders, who are accused of “terrorist propaganda,” “condoning crime” and “inciting crime” for participating in campaign of solidarity with a Kurdish newspaper that was being hounded by the authorities.
Responding to the summing-up delivered by the prosecution in February, Önderoğlu said the action for which he was being tried – symbolically serving as the newspaper’s editor for one day – was just one more expression of his decades-old commitment to press freedom.
RSF’s Turkey representative since 1996, Önderoğlu said the charges against him were completely baseless and were motivated by a desire to intimidate Turkish journalists and civil society.
“For the past 24 years, my work has consisted of supporting my fellow journalists – regardless of their political opinions or the opinions of their employers – whenever they are harassed as journalists,” he said. “I participated in this solidarity campaign because I believe a democratic society is impossible if the media cannot express themselves without censorship and persecution.”
“It is not these charges hanging over our heads like a permanent threat that worry us. It is the fate of our society in its entirety in the face of the erosion of the sense of justice that binds us together.”
Accusing the prosecution of failing to develop any case against him and his fellow defendants ever since their hasty indictment in June 2016, Önderoğlu concluded: “For the past two and a half years, we have been tried on the basis of an indictment that was prepared in a rush in a single day. I demand my acquittal and my right to continue my journalistic activities.”
As Fincancı’s lawyer was ill, Fincancı requested an adjournment so that she could present her defence arguments at another hearing. The court agreed, and scheduled a subsequent hearing – which Önderoğlu is not required to attend – for 17 July. The court’s verdict could nonetheless be issued at that hearing.
Önderoğlu, Fincancı and Nesin were among the approximately 50 well-known figures who symbolically took turns at being Özgür Gündem’s “editor for a day” in mid-2016 because it had been the victim of judicial persecution. The newspaper ended up being forcibly closed in August 2016.
Önderoğlu and his two co-defendants were the only ones to be placed in pre-trial detention for their role in the campaign. That was in June 2016, when they were freed conditionally after being held for ten days.
The already worrying situation of Turkey’s media has become critical since an abortive coup in July 2016. Many media outlets have been closed summarily, without any effective form of recourse, mass trialsare being held and Turkey now holds the world record for the number of professional journalists in prison. It is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
Reporters Without Borders