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Can Dundar: Turkey's President Erdogan has turned his country into the world's biggest prison for journalists

By Can Dundar

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's habit of confiscating cigarettes and eliciting a promise from the owners to give up famously involved the Bulgarian foreign minister in 2016 and inspired the Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gursel's to write: "Erdogan wants to become the new father to Turks."

Last week, Gursel was sentenced to two years and six months in prison for comments that included, "Turkey only needs a rebellious child like Muhammad Buazizi, who provided the spark that toppled the Tunisian dictator".

'Peace at home, peace in the world' is the celebrated maxim of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey.

In 2016, the Cumhuriyet columnist Aydin Engin alluded to Ataturk, writing, "Peace in the world, but what about at home?", in a piece published two days before the coup attempt. The putschists happened to style themselves as the 'Peace at Home Council'.

Last week, Engin was sentenced to seven years and six months in prison for a "subliminal message".

Cumhuriyet cartoonist Musa Kart booked a holiday in Bodrum after seeing an ad in the paper. The tourism firm came under investigation for links to followers of Fethullah Gulen, accused by the Turkish government of masterminding the coup attempt, and Kart was duly arrested in the same probe.

Last week, he was sentenced to three years and nine months for "aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation".

Cumhuriyet's ombudsman, Guray Oz, was arrested over phoning someone linked to Gulen. During his trial, Oz admitted speaking to the person in question once, to order a birthday dinner - the other party happened to run a takeaway restaurant.

In his defence statement, Oz asked how he could have been expected to know he was ordering pizzas from a fellow under investigation. Last week, he was sentenced to three years and nine months for "aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation".

Akin Atalay is the chairman of the executive committee of Cumhuriyet. The prosecutor accusing Cumhuriyet of seeking European funding asked, "How do you intend to maintain your independence if you're benefiting from these grants?" Atalay pointed out: "Eighty per cent of the judges and prosecutors in Turkey trained thanks to those European grants. Have they compromised their independence?"

Last week, he was sentenced to seven years and three-and-a-half months for "aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation".

Murat Sabuncu, Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief, reacted to a rally that excluded the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Peoples' Democratic Party) in the wake of the coup attempt. His headline - 'Deficient democracy' - was declared "seditious" by the prosecutor.

Last week, he was sentenced to seven years and six months for "aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation".

And I, the former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, was tried on charges ranging from "repositioning the newspaper's logo and altering its editorial policy" through to "publishing a Gulen-related news item on the front page with a photograph" and "publishing the same headline as a Gulenist newspaper on the same day".

As I live abroad, sentencing has yet to be pronounced. My barristers pointed out - in vain - that neither editorial policy, nor, indeed, which item may be printed on which page under what headline, would be matters for prosecution to decide.

Last week, a deluge of punishment rained on the staff of Cumhuriyet, this last bastion of the free Press in Turkey; from editor-in-chief through to reporter. They have all been conditionally released pending appeal.

Turkey 'celebrates' World Press Freedom Day this week as the biggest prison for journalists in the world.

Can Dundar is the former editor-in-chief of Turkish daily Cumhuriyet. He is the author of We Are Arrested: A Journalist's Notes from a Turkish Prison (Biteback Publishing)

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