A court is seen in Istanbul, Turkey, on February 5, 2021. A court recently sentenced five journalists to prison over their alleged connections to a banned group. (AP/Emrah Gurel)

Turkish court sentences 5 journalists to prison over alleged role in 2016 coup

Istanbul, September 22, 2021 – Turkish authorities should not contest the appeals of five journalists recently sentenced to prison for their alleged involvement with a banned group, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Yesterday, the Second Antalya Court of Serious Crimes convicted Cihat Ünal, Ömer Özdemir, Serhat Şeftali, Olgun Matur, and Osman Yakut on charges relating to the country’s July 15, 2016, failed coup attempt, and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from about three to six years, according to multiple news reports.

The defendants will remain free while they appeal the verdicts, and all have pleaded not guilty, according to those reports.

“Turkish authorities seem intent on continuing their years-long legal harassment of journalists, using the failed 2016 coup attempt as an excuse to clamp down on critical voices,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities must not contest the appeals of the five journalists recently sentenced to prison, and should stop weaponizing the country’s anti-terror laws to prosecute journalists in retaliation for their work.”

Authorities accuse the five journalists of advocating on behalf of the failed coup attempt through their reporting and alleged affiliation with the Hizmet movement–which the government calls FETÖ–the organization the government accuses of masterminding the coup, as CPJ has documented.

The court issued prison terms of six years and three months to Ünal, a former reporter for the shuttered daily Zaman and the Cihan News Agency; Özdemir, a former reporter for Zaman; and Şeftali, the former Antalya regional representative for both outlets and an employee of their shuttered parent company Feza Media Group, according to those reports, which said the journalists were convicted of being members of a terrorist group.

The court issued prison terms of three years, one month, and 15 days to Matur, former publisher of the local news website Bizim Antalya; and Yakut, also a former reporter for Zaman, for allegedly aiding a terrorist organization without being members of it, those reports said.

All five defendants were previously imprisoned during the trial, but were free at the time of sentencing.

During the same hearing, the court also acquitted Özkan Mayda, a former reporter for the Cihan News Agency; Kenan Baş, a former reporter for Zaman; Onur Fazıl Soydal, former publisher of the shuttered local newspaper Antalya; and Hasan Yavaşlar and Ali Orhan, two Antalya journalists, of charges stemming from their alleged connection to the coup attempt, those reports also said.

Zaman and the Cihan News Agency were among the more than 100 newspapers, broadcasters, news agencies, and magazines the Turkish government ordered closed by decree on July 27, 2016, using emergency powers it assumed after the attempted coup, according to reports.

CPJ emailed the Antalya chief prosecutor’s office for comment, but did not immediately receive any reply.