ISTANBUL (Reuters) - In a calendar on his desk at leftist daily Birgun, journalist Baris Ince has circled two dates when he will find out whether he is guilty of insulting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and be sent to prison.
Prosecutors have demanded five years’ jail time for each of the three cases against him. Two stem from articles on a corruption inquiry that swirled around Erdogan’s inner circle more than a year ago.
The third was for calling Erdogan a thief during his defense in court and in a subsequent column, where “Thief Tayyip” was spelled out with the first letter of each paragraph, a piece widely shared on social media.
Erdogan bristles at the notion that Turkey, which languishes near the bottom of international press freedom tables, has anything but a free media, declaring last month that Turkish journalists were freer than any in Europe.
Yet Ince is one of more than 70 media representatives facing legal action for referring to the corruption scandal, which erupted in December 2013 with the arrest of businessmen close to Erdogan and several cabinet minister’s sons.
“All journalists and correspondents making news against the government are qualified as traitors,” said Canan Coskun, a journalist at Turkey’s oldest newspaper Cumhuriyet, who is also among those being sued.
Erdogan cast the corruption scandal as part of a plot to unseat him by ally-turned-foe Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric whose network of followers wielded influence in the police and judiciary.
Thousands of police and hundreds of judges and prosecutors deemed loyal to Gulen have since been reassigned, while courts have dropped the corruption cases. With the investigation shut down, journalists like Ince say it was their responsibility to report details from leaked police documents.
“The justice system has lost its independence,” said Hidayet Karaca, a journalist who heads the Gulen-affiliated Samanyolu TV station. He was imprisoned on terrorism charges in December and is still in detention awaiting a formal indictment.
“The legal system is being reconstructed so that it can act according to the orders of political actors,” he said through his lawyers, in response to written questions from Reuters.
Turkish authorities have used broadly-defined anti-terrorism laws to prosecute journalists in the past, particularly in relation to the Kurdish insurgency in the country’s southeast. The European Union, which Turkey aspires to join, has said harassment of the press violates its human rights criteria.
Government officials insist that no journalists are imprisoned for their work alone, but declined to comment on specific cases, saying they were a matter for the judiciary.
Imprisonment is not the only form of harassment. Ince said he was optimistic that he would ultimately not be jailed, but opposition journalists say other methods are being used to keep them in check.
Birgun cannot get accreditation for government events, while its boss faces dozens of cases like Ince’s because he is held responsible for the work of his staff. Under such pressure, the newspaper relies on funding from trade unions and individuals to help pay its fines and keep running, as advertisers pull out.
Circulation has nonetheless risen to 30,000 from 5,000 in just two years, a rise its journalists put down to the shortage of media critical of the government in Turkey.
Meric Senyuz, a self-declared communist and journalist at news website Ileri Haber, was sentenced to six months in prison in his previous job for writing about a purported police report containing corruption allegations against Erdogan’s son.
His sentence was later cut to five months and then turned into a fine.
“It’s a normal thing in Turkey, it’s part of our profession,” he said of the ordeal. “I‘m lucky. As an opposition journalist I haven’t been in prison.”
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul and Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Tom Heneghan