ISTANBUL — After spending more than seven months in prison on terrorism charges that could keep him there for years to come, Ahmet Sik, a Turkish journalist, appeared in an Istanbul court this week with a fleeting opportunity to publicly rebut his powerful accusers.
He was on trial with 16 colleagues from Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s most prominent opposition newspaper. The case, media advocates say, is part of a harsh, year-long crackdown by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on opposition voices and is a critical test of the state’s tolerance for free speech.
In the packed courtroom, Sik appeared determined not to waste the moment.
What was supposed to be a defense statement was instead a searing attack on the government and a spirited argument for the relevance of his beleaguered profession. The indictment against the journalists was “trash,” the trial an attack on media freedom, and the judiciary a “lynch mob,” he said in his appearance on Wednesday.
“They think we will be scared and silenced,” he said.
The trial, which has made defendants of some of Turkey’s best-known journalists, is being closely watched at home and abroad, at a time when the Turkish government has earned the distinction of being the most prolific jailer of journalists in the world. Sik’s testimony — with its incendiary and rarely uttered criticism of the state — exploded on social media as it was delivered, resonating with others who felt put upon by the government.
The issues at stake in the case also mirror Turkey’s broader arguments in the year since the government fended off a coup attempt: The country has wrestled with questions about the judiciary’s independence, the dwindling influence of opposition parties, the government’s growing power and the definitions of patriotism, loyalty and treason.
The arrests of the Cumhuriyet employees began last fall, as the authorities were carrying out a massive purge of state institutions, ostensibly focused on followers of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, the accused mastermind of the coup attempt, who lives in the United States.
Ordinary dissidents were caught up in the purge, along with journalists. As it shut down media outlets and arrested journalists, including leftists, the government invoked the state’s enemies in Gulen’s movement as well as Kurdish militants.
In the case of Cumhuriyet — which had been openly hostile to the Gulen movement — the charges rang especially hollow, the paper’s supporters said. The government’s antipathy toward the newspaper was more deeply rooted, they said, and included anger at its publishing of a photograph purporting to show Turkish intelligence sending truckloads of weapons to Syrian rebels.
The government has denied jailing large numbers of media workers but has narrowly defined who can be considered a journalist.
The indictment against Cumhuriyet accuses the newspapers’ employees — including its cartoonist, a staff lawyer and its editor in chief — of a sprawling number of offenses, including “acting in accordance with the goals” of a handful of militant organizations, and publishing articles designed to “create internal turmoil and bring the country to an ungovernable state through manipulation and hiding the truth.”
Dozens of the newspaper’s supporters gathered in a plaza outside the courthouse Monday, shortly before the trial began. Standing among them was Ahmet Sik’s brother, Bulent Sik, an academic who lost his job as a university professor in the purge after the coup attempt.
As Bulent told it, Ahmet and his colleagues were on trial solely because the government was sensitive about their journalism — including articles that detailed the once-close relationship between Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the Gulen movement.
“They don’t want journalists telling them they worked hand in hand,” Bulent Sik said, adding that he was happy that the case was finally coming to trial.
Two days later, though, after sitting through hours of court testimony, he was far less hopeful. The judges seemed disengaged, he said, as if they were going through the motions. He doubts that when the hearing wraps up at the end of the week, his brother will be released.
It was not clear whether Ahmet Sik’s blistering speech helped or hurt his case.
He referred to the partnership between the AKP and the Gulen movement as a “Mafioso coalition,” and suggested that the government knew far more than it let on about the coup attempt last summer, according to a transcript of his comments published on the website of the European Center for Press and Media Freedom.
“What I say is not defense or expression. On the contrary, it is an accusation,” he said. That Sik is considered an authority on the Gulenists made his detailed portrait of elite intrigues, betrayals and collusion perhaps more damaging, at least from the government’s perspective.
“There are not many remaining who are trying to uncover the truth,” he said in lengthy comments about the many hardships faced by Turkey’s journalists. “More than anything,” he added, “we need more truth.”