Turkish journalists have second hearing in espionage case

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Story highlights

  • "What is on trial here is journalism," says Erdem Gul, Ankara bureau chief of the daily Cumhuriyet
  • He and editor-in-chief Can Dundar are accused of espionage after saying Turkish trucks were carrying arms bound for Syria
  • The proceedings are secret; Turkey's President denies clamping down on the media

Istanbul (CNN)Outside an Istanbul courthouse, police with water cannons and supporters of two prominent journalists accused of espionage settled into an uneasy detente Friday, waiting for a hearing in the case against the journalists.

The second court appearance of Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of the daily Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, the newspaper's Ankara bureau chief, began with speeches outside the courthouse by the two defendants. "No matter what is decided today, at the end of the day what is on trial here is journalism. The news is on trial. So what they are trying to adjudicate is journalism, and since journalism is not a crime, we reject this trial. This case should be dismissed today," Gul said to reporters outside the courthouse.
    The two journalists from the pro-opposition newspaper made international news headlines when they reported on trucks from Turkish intelligence, or MIT, purportedly carrying weapons bound for Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed revenge on the duo, saying they will "pay the price" in a public speech.
    The indictment was read aloud in court Friday, and the two journalists began their defense statements. In the first hearing held last month, the court ruled to keep the proceedings secret and accepted petitions by Erdogan and MIT to be civil plaintiffs in the case.
    "We are not the ones who should be on trial," Dundar told reporters before going into the courthouse. "What is on trial is our right to information, the right to know. The only thing the other side has is a crime they are trying to hide from the public," he said, referring to the MIT trucks allegedly bound for Syria.
    "But this has gone beyond just being a case against journalism, it has become about the right of international diplomats to attend the trial," Dundar said, referring to the foreign diplomats who attended the first hearing.
    Erdogan has criticized foreign diplomats, including the British consul general, for attending an ongoing espionage trial. "If this person could still go on working here, that's because of our generosity and hospitality. If it were another country, they wouldn't let a diplomat who exhibits this kind of behavior to stay there a day more," said Erdogan, according to state news agency Anadolu.
    In March, British Consul General Leigh Turner tweeted a selfie with Dundar before a hearing.
    Dundar and Gul were held in pretrial detention for 92 days leading up to their first hearing, but a last-minute ruling by Turkey's highest court set them free for the duration of the trial. The court, ruling on the merits of the pretrial imprisonment, overturned the detention orders. It found that the defendants' "right to liberty and security" and the "freedom of expression and press" had been violated. Erdogan reacted to the court ruling, saying, "I don't have to accept it, and let me say this openly: I will not obey it, and I do not respect it," according to Anadolu.
    While the government accuses Dundar and Gul of revealing state secrets, many both domestically and internationally view the case as part of a trend of eroding freedom of expression and the media in Turkey. Media companies have come under fire and have been taken over by court-appointed trustees.
    Zaman, one of Turkey's best-selling papers, took a drastic U-turn, printing pro-government headlines just days after being seized by court-appointed trustees. The government accused the paper of being the propaganda outlet for what it says is a terrorist organization called FETO that's run by a self-exiled cleric called Fethullah Gulen.
    But Erdogan denies clamping down on the media. Instead, he says that the court cases that have hit his opponents and critics are justified.
    "If a member of the press or an executive of a newspaper engages in espionage, disclosing a country's secrets to the rest of the world, and if this conduct becomes a part of the litigation, the litigation will result in a verdict. Wherever you go around the world, this will be the case. And similarly, if you are engaged in financial misconduct, you will have to wait for the verdict that will be produced by a court of law.
    "If a media outlet is involved in tax evasion, it will be a subject of a litigation. Let's say a powerful newspaper is in question, but using that newspaper, you are engaging in different actions, and if you are engaging in tax evasion or smuggling or illegitimate trafficking, do you think it is the judiciary or the political leaders which are responsible? Are they the ones who are guilty?" Erdogan said to said to CNN's Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview.
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    In a separate incident, journalists and protesters faced off against Erdogan's bodyguards in Washington on Thursday, where the Turkish President was giving a speech at the Brookings Institution. Former Economist correspondent Amberin Zaman wrote on her Twitter account that Erdogan's security detail tried to prevent her from going inside and called her a "PKK whore," referring to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party. In videos posted to social media, Washington police can be seen trying to separate protesters from Erdogan's security detail.