Istanbul, March 9, 2016 -- Turkish prosecutors should immediately drop all charges against newspaper editor Barış İnce, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. An Istanbul court on Tuesday sentenced the editor to 21 months in prison for insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in an acrostic presented first as a court document in an unrelated trial, and subsequently published in the editor's newspaper. İnce is free pending appeal.
İnce, editor of the leftist daily newspaper Birgün, initially went on trial at the Istanbul Court of First Instance on October 20, 2014, to answer charges of defamation and "violation of secrecy" in connection with his newspaper's coverage of corruption allegations against Erdoğan when he was prime minister, and his son, Bilal. At that trial, İnce presented the court with a written defense, which featured an acrostic-- --in which the first letter of each paragraph spells a phrase--spelling "Hırsız Tayyip" (Tayyip the Thief). The court on December 10, 2015, sentenced İnce to a suspended sentence of 11 months in prison on the initial charges, according to press reports.
But after Birgün published that acrostic on its front page, prosecutors brought the editor to trial on additional charges of insulting the president. The Istanbul Court of First Instance on Tuesday found that the acrostic violated article 299 of Turkey's Penal Code, which allows for penalties of up to four years and eight months for insulting the president.
"We call on Turkish authorities to drop all the charges against Barış İnce and to stop using old, sweeping, and repressive laws to silence critics," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "The Turkish press is increasingly besieged by transparently political prosecutions."
Since becoming president in August 2014, Erdoğan has filed more than 1,800 cases under article 299 of the Penal Code against various critics, according to Turkish Justice Ministry data cited by the Turkish press. The article, which has been in place since 1926, has been used against journalists, students, activists, scholars, artists, and even to prosecute a former beauty queen, CPJ research shows. CPJ is aware of at least 24 ongoing prosecutions for insulting the president in Turkey.
Turkish authorities have in recent months expanded a crackdown on the press. In a dramatic, court-mandated raid, the government on March 4 wrested control of the editorial and managerial boards of the Cihan news agency, and the newspapers Zaman and Today's Zaman, having already taken over the newspaper Bugun and the Kanalturk television station.
Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, the editor and Ankara bureau chief, respectively, of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, still face multiple life sentences in connection with a report alleging that Turkey's intelligence service was sending weapons to Syrian militants, despite the Supreme Court's ruling that the government had violated their rights. Following the Supreme Court's ruling, Erdoğan told reporters, "I don't obey or respect the decision."
Turkish police have arrested at least seven Kurdish journalists since December 1, 2015, when CPJ's most recent annual snapshot of journalists imprisoned around the world found 14 journalists jailed in Turkey.