Turkish journalists protest pre-trial detentions

Tue Jan 10, 2012 7:48am EST

* Paper says number of jailed journalists up to nearly 100

* Government says journalists not jailed for what they wrote

* Pre-trial detention in focus after ex-military chief held

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Dozens of Turkish journalists awaiting trial protested their innocence from their jail cells on Tuesday, highlighting curbs on press freedom at a time of broader tensions in the country over pre-trial detentions.

"We are journalists, not terrorists," they proclaimed in a newspaper published to highlight cases ranging from accusations of Kurdish militant links to charges of involvement in secularist plots to overthrow the Islamist-rooted government.

Tutuklu Gazete, or "Jailed Newspaper" appeared on Tuesday as concern grows domestically and internationally about the number of journalists in custody and the extensive use of pre-trial detention in Turkey, a European Union-candidate country.

The number of journalists held pending trial in Turkish prisons has risen to 97 from 70 when the first edition of the paper appeared last July, said Tuesday's second edition, published by journalists who support their detained colleagues.

Numbers swelled in late December when about 30 journalists were remanded in custody under an investigation into alleged links between Kurdish activists and armed separatist militants.

"Activities which are completely in line with principles of the journalistic profession are judged to be publications designed to 'undermine the government'," the lead article said.

The government says journalists are largely on trial for terrorist or criminal activities, not due to what they wrote.

Friday's jailing of former armed forces chief Ilker Basbug on a charge of seeking to overthrow the government has brought the issue of pre-trial detention to the fore.

During nearly 10 years in power, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government has earned praise for its economic and political reforms. Turkey has also become a diplomatic power in the Middle East and some see it as an example of Muslim democracy in a turbulent region.

However, concern is growing in the EU and United States at the country's record on media freedom under Erdogan, whose AK party has roots in a banned Islamist party. Domestically, political opponents accuse the government of trying to tame the media and smother opposition, accusations it rejects.

Most of the journalists in custody are being prosecuted under widely implemented laws against membership or spreading the propaganda of terrorist groups, referring mainly to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group.

LEGAL WALLS

The newspaper called for parliament to ease restrictions on journalistic expression and for the release of writers jailed for freedom of expression-related crimes.

"Legal walls remain in front of freedom of thought and expression," said Ahmet Sik, who is accused of involvement in plots of the underground "Ergenekon" network to overthrow the government.

Turkey's main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is being investigated over critical remarks he made about a prison near Istanbul and the integrity of judges presiding over the "Ergenekon" trials, state media reported on Monday.

Erdogan said on Monday he did not like to see suspects imprisoned pending trial.

"Our wish is always for people to remain free rather than remanded in custody when they are prosecuted," he told a news conference. "It is the wish of me personally and my party that this should be resolved rapidly."

According to figures cited by the Turkish Human Rights Association, 42 percent of all 128,000 inmates in Turkish prisons are on remand and have not been convicted.

"There are some deep structural reasons to this systemic crackdown on human liberty," political commentator Mustafa Akyol said in a column in Hurriyet Daily News at the weekend.

"Unlike other countries such as the United States, the Turkish legal system has no concept of bail," he said. "Modern techniques such as electronic tagging have not made their way to Turkey yet, despite promises from the Justice Ministry." (Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Stamp)