Turkey clears RSF representative of 'terror propaganda'

Gokan GUNES
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Reporters Without Borders representative for Turkey, Erol Onderoglu, was abroad for the verdict

The Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was acquitted on Wednesday of the charge of making "terror propaganda" for Kurdish militants, in a case which triggered international alarm over press freedom in the country.

With dozens of journalists behind bars and on trial, activists claim the climate for the media has deteriorated under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Supporters erupted into applause after RSF representative Erol Onderoglu, rights activist Sebnem Korur Fincanci and journalist Ahmet Nesin were acquitted by an Istanbul court.

They were accused of making "terror propaganda" on behalf of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) after guest-editing the pro-Kurdish Turkish newspaper Ozgur Gundem, as well as "condoning crime" and "inciting crime".

The three risked 14 years in jail in the trial which began in November 2016.

Ozgur Gundem had invited guest editors to take control of the paper in a campaign of solidarity as it faced pressure from the Turkish authorities.

The newspaper was raided and permanently shut down in August 2016, accused of links with the PKK which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

The three campaigners were detained for a short period in 2016, and can now apply for financial compensation for time spent in jail.

The acquittals are in stark contrast with the harsh verdicts handed down by Turkish courts to critical journalists in recent years, the most controversial of which was the case against opposition daily Cumhuriyet whose former staff have been sentenced to jail.

- 'Unjust punishment' -

"I warmly thank all those who supported us during the trial," Onderoglu, who will return to Istanbul next week, said via text message.

But he added: "The fight continues for all our colleagues unjustly on trial or imprisoned."

RSF said on Twitter it was "deeply relieved" by the acquittals but called for another trial due to begin against Onderoglu later this year to be scrapped.

Onderoglu faces the same accusation of making "terror propaganda" after supporting academics who signed a petition calling for peace and the end of security operations against militants in the Kurdish-majority southeast.

"Three years of absurd proceedings was already a form of unjust punishment. AND a new trial against Erol will start on 7 November. These charges must be dropped!" RSF said.

Only Fincanci attended the hearing while Onderoglu and Nesin were abroad.

Fincanci told AFP she was "very surprised" by the acquittal.

"I don't know how to react! Unfortunately we spent an unnecessary amount of time in jail, it's a shame," she said.

"It was the only decision possible, but there should not have been a trial in the first place."

RSF chief Christophe Deloire said on Twitter that the verdict was a "great victory for justice and press freedom, both of which are violated on a daily basis... It represents a huge hope for all the journalists who remain arbitrarily detained."

RSF ranks Turkey 157th out of 180 countries for press freedom.

The P24 press freedom website says 140 journalists are behind bars in Turkey, most of them detained under a two-year state of emergency imposed after a failed coup in 2016.