Turkey’s Independent Newspaper Voice Perseveres With a Smile

From left, Cumhuriyet’s editor in chief, Murat Sabuncu; foundation chairman and columnist Orhan Erinc; and chief executive Akin Atalay at the newspaper’s office in Istanbul last week.

ISTANBUL — After sharing a prison cell for more than a year, the top executives of Turkey’s oldest newspaper were convicted in April and given heavy sentences for aiding terrorism. But they returned to work last week with determination and a string of jokes.

“In the past I was doing my job smiling,” said Akin Atalay, the chief executive of the newspaper, Cumhuriyet. “Now I am grinning.”

“I have only one problem,” he said, gesturing to Murat Sabuncu, his editor in chief, laughing beside him in the newspaper’s boardroom. “We were together for 24 hours” a day, “and now I don’t want to see him, but I cannot get rid of him.”

Their good humor could hardly disguise the seriousness of the threat against them. For 18 months, the two men have been fighting a group indictment against 18 members of their newspaper, including executives, writers, a cartoonist, accountants and lawyers. Eleven of them were jailed for months in pretrial detention but have slowly been released.

In a calculated blow, the court issued a verdict that shocked even Turkey’s most seasoned journalists and lawyers. Fourteen of the group were convicted of terrorism-related crimes, some of them with sentences of up to eight years in prison. They are free during the appeal process, but will return to prison if the sentences are upheld.

The sentences are part of a searing crackdown by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since a failed coup in July 2016. The authorities have now jailed more than 50,000 people, suspended over 140,000 from their jobs and brought around 160 journalists to trial, often on charges related to terrorism for alleged connections to the coup plotters.

The recent verdicts against Cumhuriyet were denounced by human rights and press freedom groups around the world. In Turkey, they were taken as a signal that Mr. Erdogan intends to continue a campaign to oppress the news media even, or especially, as the country prepares to vote in one of the most important elections in its history.

Mr. Erdogan has called presidential and parliamentary elections for June 24, more than a year ahead of schedule, in a vote that is part of Turkey’s transition to a presidential system that would, if Mr. Erdogan wins, give him virtually unchecked new powers.

Cumhuriyet represents one of the few remaining independent voices in Turkey, where the majority of the news media has been gathered into pro-government hands, and it carries considerable political influence, in particular among the secularist opposition.

The state news media follows Mr. Erdogan’s every speech, while giving little time to the opposition and entirely blocking out the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, whose presidential candidate is campaigning from jail.

Founded in 1924, Cumhuriyet is almost as old as the Turkish Republic itself, and has survived military coups, explosions and assassinations over the years. Police barriers surround its offices in downtown Istanbul, protection against Islamist extremists since the newspaper published an issue of Charlie Hebdo in solidarity after the terrorist attack against the French satirical magazine in January 2015.

Yet for many at the newspaper, the mass jailing and terrorism convictions of its staff — actions that the newspaper’s lawyer, Tora Pekin, described as “irrational” and “so wrong” — surpasses all previous ordeals.

“I have been through both military and civilian coups,” said Orhan Erinc, 82, a veteran journalist and chairman of the Cumhuriyet Foundation board that manages the newspaper, who received one of the stiffest sentences, six years and three months. “This has nothing in common with what we have seen in the past. I don’t know what to call it. There is no law.”

The sentences were just the latest attempt by the government to subdue the newspaper, Mr. Atalay said. It had tried an economic embargo, crippling the newspaper by warning companies off advertising in it, and then tried to get pro-government businessmen to buy out the newspaper, he said. But Cumhuriyet was able to resist their offers.

“When they could not succeed, they put us in jail,” Mr. Atalay said.

Yet the government had also encountered obstacles in its campaign against Cumhuriyet, he said. “They did not silence us,” he added. “They tried to intimidate us, but they saw we were not intimidated.”

The staff managed to keep publishing in their absence — even if barely managing to pay salaries — and international pressure against the government increased.

“In the view of the international community, this newspaper is trustworthy and reliable,” Mr. Atalay said. “And inside it, there are very stubborn, very determined, very resilient people, and they do perform the battle of journalism with joy.”

A senior columnist, Aydin Engin, 76, stepped in to run the paper, and the journalists kept reporting. “We did not know if the newspaper would be closed down,” said Bulent Ozdogan, the newsroom manager. “We just did what we knew to do.”

Opponents accuse Mr. Erdogan of trying to instigate one-man rule, an accusation that has been angrily denounced by Mr. Erdogan and his supporters.

“This election comes at a very important juncture,” the editor in chief, Mr. Sabuncu, said. “Either we are going to go for democracy or we end up a different country.”

Turkey’s authoritarian drift alarms him so much that this month, when it appeared that Mr. Erdogan had sent the army chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, to dissuade the former president Abdullah Gul from running against Mr. Erdogan, Cumhuriyet ran front-page headlines about it for three days. No other newspaper dared.

“We are not close or far from any party,” he said. “We have a rule that if the news on our desk is true, it is going to press. The cost of not publishing that story is not to practice journalism anymore.”

Mr. Sabuncu says he, too, came out of prison with a better sense of humor. “I cannot stop telling jokes, and I think the paper is more fun for that,” he said in an interview.

Yet he has a serious mission in hand, not least to ensure that Cumhuriyet keeps publishing. He expresses frustration that he had been editor in chief for only two months when he was sent to jail for a year and a half.

He starts his day at 6 a.m., reading the papers in a cafe on the water’s edge of the Bosporus, and checks the last editions from home at midnight.

The newspaper started a successful weekend print supplement while he was in jail, but his arrest delayed development of the paper’s online edition, which is critical to its financial survival.

Cumhuriyet’s print circulation has fallen to around 40,000, partly, editors say, because the climate of fear is such that people do not want to be seen reading it. Yet close to a million people read the online edition, editors say.

Mr. Sabuncu said his chief concern was for the many others still in jail, and for the country he loves. “From the very beginning, we have been saying that it is more than Cumhuriyet,” he said.

In jail he realized that Turkey had become a divided and joyless place, but he said he believed Turks would change that. Even Mr. Erdogan’s supporters are tired of his divisive politics, Mr. Sabuncu said, and the support for Mr. Gul’s candidacy is a sign of dissent within Mr. Erdogan’s party.

“Ruling by fear, everyone knows, fails, and now we are at the end of this fear,” he said. “I believe somehow Turks will turn this darkness into light.”

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