A protest in support of freedom of the press in Turkey. File photo: Ozan Kose/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Turkey’s record of suppression of the media is in the global spotlight this week with two cases drawing international attention.
German journalist and translator Mesale Tolu is on trial for membership in a terrorist organization and publishing terrorist propaganda. On Wednesday, a Turkish court denied her request to be released from jail while her case is heard.
Tolu, who was working for left wing ETHA news agency, was arrested on April 30. She is charged with being a member of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) based on attending funerals for party members and attending protests against government corruption, her lawyer Ezgi Gungordu told Deutsche Welle on Wednesday.
Gungordu said the case includes a statement from an anonymous witness who does not know Tolu but maintained the journalist participated in events organized by the women’s branch of the MLKP.
He described the case as “unlawful,” pointing out that attending a funeral is not a crime and the indictment against Tolu does not include “a shred of evidence pointing to Tolu having taken part in an MLKP event.”
Tolu denied the charges during the first day of her trial on Wednesday. Her three-year old son is living in jail with her. His father is also detained, Deutsche Welle reported.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has called for her to have a fair and fast trial “so that Mesale Tolu will be released as soon as possible and can come back to Germany.” He made his comments to Germany’s Bild newspaper on Wednesday.
Tolu is one of 11 German citizens, some of whom also hold Turkish nationality, arrested in Turkey over the past year.
A day before Tolu’s trial began, a Turkish court convicted a Wall Street Journalist reporter in absentia of terrorism and sentenced her to two years and one month in prison.
Ayla Albayrak was convicted of engaging in propaganda in support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), named a terror organization by Turkey, the EU, and the US.
The conviction stems from an article Albayrak wrote in 2015 about the Turkey-PKK conflict.
“This was an unfounded criminal charge and wildly inappropriate conviction that wrongly singled out a balanced Wall Street Journal report,” said Wall Street Journal Editor in Chief Gerard Baker on Tuesday. “The sole purpose of the article was to provide objective and independent reporting on events in Turkey, and it succeeded.”
Albayrak, a dual Finnish-Turkish citizen, plans on appealing the decision. She maintains that her article provided a balanced view of the Turkey-PKK conflict.
“Given the current climate in Turkey, this appalling decision shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but it did,” she said.
US Senator John McCain condemned Albayrak’s conviction in a statement on Wednesday.
“The real reason for Ms. Albayrak’s conviction is that she had the courage and skill to objectively report about the diverse political viewpoints in Turkey and around the region. Ms. Albayrak’s sentencing adds to a troubling crackdown on the free press by President Erdogan’s government in Turkey, where independent media outlets have been closed and countless journalists have been jailed,” McCain stated.
He urged the US to pressure Ankara to reverse the decision and “stand up for human rights in Turkey and around the world.”
Tens of thousands of people have been arrested in Turkey since the failed coup attempt last year, including several European journalists.
Rights groups such as Amnesty International say that Turkey remains the worst country for journalists, jailing more than any other country in the world.
The government “aggressively used the penal code, criminal defamation legislation and the country’s anti-terrorism law to punish critical reporting, and journalists faced growing violence,” said democracy advocacy group Freedom House last year.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke out against the arrests in Turkey last month.
"Journalists belong in newsrooms not in prisons," he said. "I appeal to the powers that be in Turkey, let our journalists go."
The Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) reported on July 28 there were 168 journalists in prison in Turkey.