London: A Turkish court sentenced 24 journalists to prison on Friday, ruling that they were linked to a religious sect that the government calls a terrorist group and that has been blamed for a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Most of the journalists worked for news organisations that are considered friendly to Fetullah Gulen, a cleric living in seclusion in a small town in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government claims that Gulen leads a shadowy, violent movement aiming to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian since the coup attempt. He has steadily tightened his control over the government, the military, the media, courts, schools and even the internet, fraying relations with Turkey’s Western allies. He has purged tens of thousands of people suspected of disloyalty from the government and the military, and thousands more have been arrested and charged with supporting terrorism.
In July 2016, elements of the military appeared to seize power, and aircraft bombed the parliament building and presidential palace in Ankara. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands were wounded before Erdogan reasserted control.
His government contends that the Gulen movement, also known as Hizmet, tried to overthrow the government after infiltrating public and private institutions, in effect creating its own parallel system. Turkey has demanded Gulen’s extradition, but the United States has refused.
Twenty-two of the journalists sentenced on Friday were convicted of being members of an armed terrorist group - Gulen’s organization — and sentenced to six and a quarter to seven and a half years in prison. Several of them had worked for Zaman, a major newspaper that was one of several news organisations the government shut down in 2016.
Two others were convicted on a lesser charge of helping a terrorist group, but were freed based on time they had served. One of them, Atilla Tas, is a pop singer and columnist who was sentenced to more than three years. Tas is famed for his satirical wit on Twitter, which he has used to criticise and poke fun at the government.
In December, Turkey held 73 journalists in prison, more than any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.