Turkish police pepper spray supporters of 2 prominent journalists arrested for ‘treason’

Police in Ankara used pepper spray against supporters of two prominent journalists accused of treason over publishing photos of weapons allegedly brought to Syria by Turkish intelligence. Several thousand rallied in their support in Istanbul and Ankara.

The Friday rally in support of the editor-in- chief and Ankara editor of the Cumhuriyet newspaper in the Turkish capital was attended by about 1,000 people accusing the government of attempting to cover up the weapons scandal by silencing the critics and the press. "Shoulder-to-shoulder against fascism," the crowd chanted.

About 2,000 people gathered near the Cumhuriyet office in Istanbul to demonstrate their solidarity with the arrested journalists. The protesters filled the yard and the street outside the newspaper’s office chanting, “Free press cannot be silenced.”

“It was just like a bomb exploding in Ankara… and [many] organizations around the country called just one day off,” one of the protesters told RT commenting on the arrests. “Society is ready to explode at any moment,” he added.

Some demonstrators also chanted “Murderer Erdogan,” accusing the Turkish president as well as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of cooperating with Islamic State terrorist group. Some people also held Friday’s edition of Cumhuriyet newspaper with a front-page headline reading “Black Day for the press,” Reuters reported.

The protest was attended by opposition politicians.

"Journalism is being put on trial with these arrests and the Turkish press is being intimidated," Utku Cakirozer, a deputy from the main opposition People's Republican Party (CHP) and Cumhuriyet's former top editor, told Reuters.

"All opposition press organizations that are abiding by the ethics of journalism and trying to do their journalism are under threat and under attack," Figen Yuksekdag, co-chairwoman of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), said during the rally, as quoted by Reuters.

"This dark operation aimed at covering the crimes that those trucks carried and the crimes which are continuing to be committed will not be successful," she added.

“The government does not want any journalist to see what kind of a calamity they have involved Turkey in,” opposition lawmaker Baris Yarkadas told AP.

‘Heavy price’

The protests follow the arrests of Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, senior editor of the paper in Ankara, on charges of treason, espionage and terrorist propaganda.

Dundar and Gul were detained and transferred to Istanbul prison late on Thursday. The investigation against them has been launched after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan filed a criminal complaint accusing the journalists of revealing state secrets and aiding terrorists.

In May, Cumhuriyet published several articles containing the photos of what was claimed to be weapons smuggled by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) into Syria in 2014. The trucks that carried weapons were reportedly searched by police, with Cumhuriyet obtaining the photos and videos of their contents.

READ MORE: Turkish newspaper editor in court for 'espionage' after revealing weapon convoy to Syrian militants

According to the paper, the trucks were carrying six steel containers, with 1,000 artillery shells, 50,000 machine gun rounds, 30,000 heavy machine gun rounds and 1,000 mortar shells for anti-Assad extremists in Syria.

Turkish authorities denied all allegations by claiming that the trucks were carrying humanitarian aid for Syrian Turkmen. President Erdogan vowed revenge against those behind the story, saying they would “pay a heavy price.”

Now, both journalists face potential lifetime imprisonment, Turkish daily Today’s Zaman reports.

“There is a crime that has been committed by the state that they are trying to cover up,” Can Dundar said as he arrived at the court in Istanbul, according to Today’s Zaman.

“We are being charged with being spies; the president is saying that we are traitors to the state. We are not spies, we are not traitors, we are not heroes; we are journalists,” he added.

According to Human Rights Watch, Turkey is witnessing a crackdown on media freedom under Erdogan’s rule, with many journalists facing prison terms for reporting on corruption and surveillance by the Turkish state.

Erdogan’s regime even attempted to silence social media, blocking YouTube and Twitter on a number of occasions.

‘Crackdown on journalism’

Recent arrests also revived the criticism of Turkey’s handling of press freedom and weakening of the rule of law, both within Turkey and abroad.

“We as journalists can no longer investigate. People spread rumors and we are not free to verify them,” Said Sefa, the editor-in-chief of the Haberdar newspaper told RT.

“Events covered in the international media can be completely underreported in Turkey. The reason for that is a crackdown on journalism. If a media company criticizes the government it is seen as treason,” opposition lawmaker Mehmet Ali Edeboglu told RT in an interview.

Nils Muiznieks, the human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe, denounced the move as “another blow to media freedom in Turkey,” while the US embassy said on twitter that Washington was “very concerned” about the the issue.