Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has said that Turkey’s justice system must “stop persecuting” Erol Önderoğlu, the Turkey representative of the prominent press organization who is to appear before an İstanbul court on Wednesday on terrorism-related charges carrying a sentence of more than 14 years.
Önderoğlu and his co-defendants, human rights defender Şebnem Korur Fincancı and journalist and writer Ahmet Nesin, are being tried for taking part in a campaign to support Özgür Gündem, a newspaper that was shut down in 2016 for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The Turkish-language paper was popular in the country’s large Kurdish community but denied links to the PKK militants who have been waging an insurgency against the state since 1984 and is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the international community.
Özgür Gündem was shuttered after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched a crackdown on opposition media and his political rivals following a failed coup in July 2016.
Önderoğlu was one of some 50 well-known figures who took turns at symbolically being Özgür Gündem’s “editor for a day” in May 2016 because it was the victim of judicial persecution.
He and his co-defendants are accused of “disseminating terrorist propaganda,” “praising a crime or criminal” and “condoning a crime” – charges carrying a possible combined sentence of 14 and a half years in prison under Turkey’s penal code and Terrorism Law No. 3713.
Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of RSF, said on Tuesday, a day before Önderoğlu and others appeared before the court for the 17th time in seven years, that the case against them was “a tragic example of political meddling in judicial matters.”
“We urge the Turkish justice system to end this persecution and drop all proceedings against Erol Önderoğlu,” Deloire added.
Although Önderoglu and his co-defendants were initially acquitted in July 2019, their acquittal was overturned by an İstanbul appeals court that in October 2020 rejected the argument that their editorial roles were purely symbolic. As a result, an İstanbul assizes court began retrying them on the same charges in February 2021.
It is common for journalists in Turkey, which has a poor record on freedom of the press, to face threats, physical attacks and legal harassment due to their work.
Rights groups routinely accuse the Turkish government of trying to keep the press under control by imprisoning journalists, closing media outlets, overseeing the purchase of media brands by pro-government conglomerates and using regulatory authorities to exert financial pressure, especially after Erdoğan survived an abortive putsch in 2016.
Turkey, which is one of the top jailers of journalists in the world, was ranked 149th among 180 countries in the RSF 2022 World Press Freedom Index, released in May.