'Govt. trying to hide': Turkey closes then postpones trials of two leading opposition journalists

Can Dundar © Murad Sezer
The trial of the news editor and bureau chief of a popular opposition newspaper, who could face multiple life sentences, was first closed to the public, then adjourned by an Istanbul judge on Friday. The two face charges of state secrets, espionage, and aiding a terrorist group.

"What we have been trying to say since the beginning is that the government is trying to hide this case. They are trying to take it away from the people. They are trying to hide not just the case but the news piece which is the subject of the case. Because they are caught in the act here. And there is a government which is caught in the act in front of the whole world," said Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the daily Cumhuriyet, in front of a frantic media scramble, and surrounded by his supporters, among journalists and politicians.

The trial will now open on April 1.

"We will keep our challenge up till the end regarding the freedom of the press, the freedom of justice, and allowing people to learn the truth," said Dandar.

Like others in recent years, Dundar, 54, and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul, 49, stand accused of trying to topple the government, something they allegedly attempted to do by publishing last May a video purporting to reveal truckloads of arms shipments to Syria overseen by Turkish intelligence.

Erdogan did admit to the trucks belonging to the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT), but said they were carrying weapons for the Turkmens – the group fighting both Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). He added that the prosecution had no right to peer into the trucks, and that the whole thing was set up to discredit his administration.

Dundar threatened to show the tape in court, knowing the risks involved. It did not pan out according to plan, and has resulted in the punishment he received Friday morning – that he will not see an open trial. In addition, the courts decided that Erdogan will act as a co-plaintiff in the trials, Reuters learned from a witness.

"We are not defendants, we are witnesses,” he told Reuters in an interview hours before the trial. "We were arrested for two reasons: to punish us and to frighten others. And we see the intimidation has been effective. Fear dominates.”

Dundar and Gul made an appearance before the courthouse on Friday morning, emphasizing that “journalism is not a crime” and once again calling publicly for their acquittal.

In the meantime, the trial of Dundar and Gul was sharply criticized by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which called it another case of persecution of journalists. Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, denounced the trial as another incident in a “continuous series of blatant violations of the freedom of press, of speech and of expression by Turkish authorities.”

Turkey had launched “a crackdown on the media that takes the liberty of providing more or less impartial coverage of the Turkish government’s policy. They are persecuted. And this is not the only example. Some journalists have already been sentenced for insulting President Erdogan,” Dolgov told Izvestia newspaper.

According to Dolgov, the media crackdown can be explained particularly by the fact that “the Turkish authorities fear the truth, [and fear] the exposure of their abusive practices… international law violations [in Syria].”

Both journalists were arrested in November and released following three months in detention after a constitutional court ruled on their release before trial – something Erdogan was not happy about.

“This institution, with the involvement of its president and some members, did not refrain from taking a decision that is against the country and its people, on a subject that is a concrete example of one of the biggest attacks against Turkey recently,” the state leader said at a rally in early March.

Just after the journalists’ release, Erdogan said he didn’t “obey or respect the [court’s] decision.” Their case “has nothing to do with press freedom,” he said, accusing them of “spying.”

He has also been heard saying Dundar would “pay a heavy price” for his crimes.

Numerous rights groups and press associations have voiced grave concern for press freedom in Turkey, all issuing calls to free Dundar and Gul. The International Press Institute called the trial "politically motivated." Reporters Without Borders went a step further, calling Erdogan "increasingly despotic."

READ MORE: Almost 2,000 court cases opened in 18-months for ‘insulting’ Turkish President Erdogan

The development follows several others in recent months, all involving the media being charged with similar crimes for similar offenses. This month authorities seized control of Zaman – the country’s top-selling newspaper, for allegedly aiding Fethullah Gulen – a religious scholar in exile whom Erdogan accused of leading a “terrorist” movement.

Since Erdogan came to power in 2014, a little under 2,000 such cases have been started, the majority for “insulting” the president.