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Trial of journalist an attempt to ‘silence’ Turkish Cypriot dissent

Turkish Cypriot journalist Ali Kismir
Turkish Cypriot journalist Ali Kismir

Case centres on a meeting held by Turkey to sway 2020 Turkish Cypriot elections

The unprecedented criminal case that has raised eyebrows both locally and internationally, in which Turkish Cypriot journalist Ali Kismir faces up to ten years in prison for “insulting and defaming” the Turkish Cypriot security forces, began on Friday.

Kismir is being charged for an article about Turkey’s meddling in the 2020 elections for Turkish Cypriot leader. The journalist, who is also the president of the Turkish Cypriot Journalists Union (Basin-Sen), had written that Turkish officials held a meeting in a building belonging to the Turkish Cypriot security forces command to sway the elections in favour of current leader Ersin Tatar. He likened the security forces command building to a “brothel, where the will of Turkish Cypriots is sold and bought”.

After Friday’s hearing, which was postponed to October 27, Kismir’s lawyer and head of the Turkish Cypriot Bar Association Hasan Esendagli explained to the Cyprus Mail that the case is a dangerous precedent as it is the first time a high criminal case has been brought against a journalist under the law regulating military crimes and stipulates such a serious jail sentence.

“We are going through a period where we are facing everything we feared,” said Esendagli, who is voluntarily defending Kismir. “Criminal cases against people because of their opinions, ideas, words and articles are a practice of outdated, oppressive regimes. Such actions are used as weapons to make sure people are silent, that they fear to talk and write.”

As Turkey’s pressure on the media in the northern part of Cyprus grows, there is a lot of fear in the community that this could be a first step in following Ankara’s lead in imprisoning opposition journalists.

“Many journalists and dissidents are in jail in Turkey,” said Esendagli. “Unfortunately, from the cases that are being brought, we are getting indications that such a trend is also desirable here. There exists a mentality that would like to create a similar situation here.”

Currently 21 journalists are imprisoned for their professional activities in Turkey, according to the European Federation of Journalists EFJ. According to the Independent Communication Network BIA, which monitors press freedom violations in Turkey, during July-September 2023, an additional 206 journalists were on trials facing prison sentences.

International non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders RSF, which defends and promotes press freedom around the world, also drew attention to Turkey’s growing pressure on Turkish Cypriot journalists in its 2023 Press Freedom Index.

“Sanctions and prosecution, including criminal proceedings, are being brought against journalists, who criticise the Turkish or Turkish Cypriot government, military, or authorities,” RSF said.

About Kismir’s case, Pavol Szalai, head of RSF’s EU-Balkans desk stated: “By denouncing Turkey’s meddling in Turkish Cypriot elections, Ali Kismir was just doing his job as a journalist. This abusive prosecution is nothing but an attempt by the Turkish Cypriot authorities to intimidate and muzzle journalists.”

The case against Kismir drew strong reaction from opposition parties and politicians, trade unions, intellectuals and local and international journalists’ organisations.

Turkish Cypriot Akel MEP Niyazi Kizilyurek, in a parliamentary question submitted to the European Commission, said: “This is an attempt by the ‘authorities’ to restrict press freedom and freedom of expression through the threat of imprisonment… What steps does the Commission plan to take to secure the civil rights, press freedom and freedom of expression of European citizens, which are being violated in Turkish Cypriot community?”

Former Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci
Former Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci

Intervention

The enormous pressure Ankara put on the Turkish Cypriot community during the 2020 leadership elections was documented in an investigative report, which revealed shocking details of threats, pressures and blackmail against incumbent leader Mustafa Akinci, as well as other candidates and journalists.

The meeting by Turkish officials including commanders and Turkish Central Intelligence Agency MIT officials in a Turkish Cypriot security forces command building to sway the elections in favour of the current leader Ersin Tatar – the subject of Kismir’s article – was also confirmed by Akinci in this report.

According to Akinci, a number of Turkish Cypriot deputies invited to this meeting were told by the-then Turkish ambassador in the northern part of Cyprus: “You have before you not only the ambassador, but the Turkish state. The Republic of Turkey definitely wants Tatar. It doesn’t want Akinci. For the Republic of Turkey, this is a matter of survival. You will work to make sure Tatar is elected.”

Tatar won the elections with 51.69 per cent of the votes, ousting Akinci.

Kismir, who is well known for his writings critical of Ankara’s policies and its Ankara-backed leader Tatar, was one of the journalists who received threats by Ankara during the same 2020 election campaign.

According to the report, Kismir was invited to meet with a team from Turkey, who introduced themselves as “ambassadors of the Republic of Turkey” and was told: “We are here to make sure Akinci is not elected… This man is an enemy of Turkey… If Akinci is elected he will have very bad things happen to him.”

Kismir was also told that he is on a list of ‘enemies of Turkey’.

In fact, Kismir was among a dozen Turkish Cypriot journalists, trade unionists, writers and activists, who have been denied entry to Turkey in recent years on grounds that they pose a security threat.

Kismir also lost his job at a local news portal earlier this year after publishing an article criticising Tatar. His article was removed from the website of the portal, and he was told that his web TV programme was also cancelled. He was also told by his employers that “the office of Tatar and others had called numerous times to complain” about him.

Shortly before Friday’s hearing, Kismir called on the Turkish Cypriot community to defend not only his personal freedom of expression but the freedom of expression of the whole society in what he described as a “political case aimed at silencing dissident voices”.

“Unless this struggle turns into a social struggle, today it will be me, who is on trial, and tomorrow it will be someone else,” said Kismir. “We have to say, ‘enough is enough’.”

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