Russia Jails Investigative Journalist, Turkey Arrests Dozens, for ‘Extremism’

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shake hands during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, 08 July 2017. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

  • Investigative journalist has been given a long prison sentence in Russia for ‘seeking to overthrow the Russian authorities’, i.e. ‘extremism’.
  • Journalist had in fact been investigating a huge embezzlement case.
  • He had initiated a group demanding a referendum for greater accountability of state officials.
  • Turkey has arrested dozens of journalists and media executives for connections to the ‘terrorist’ movement of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
  • Gulen is accused of organizing the failed July 2016 coup attempt.
  • Crackdown against journalists and other dissenters has been ongoing on for Turkey but has intensified since the failed coup.

A court in Russia has given a well-known investigative journalist a 3.5-year prison sentence for “seeking to overthrow” the authorities, while Turkey has arrested dozens of journalists and media executives for alleged connections with the movement of US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Freedom of speech and independence of the media in both Russia under President Vladimir Putin and Turkey under President Recep Erdogan have increasingly become a mirage.

‘Extremist Group’

29-year-old Russian investigative journalist Alexander Sokolov was sentenced on Thursday to 3.5 years in prison for creating an “extremist” group aimed at “overthrowing the Russian authorities”, DW reported.

Sokolov and his group in question, “For Responsible Government”, however, were actually calling for holding a referendum to increase transparency from government officials, and make them more accountable.

Investigative journalist Alexander Sokolov was arrested by the Russian police in June 2015.

At the time he worked for the RBK news agency which in June 2017 was sold by its previous, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, to the owner of a pro-Kremlin newspaper, energy oligarch Grigory Berezkin.

“The idea of holding a referendum against the present-day authorities was recognized to be an extremist one. But we have not finished yet, we will keep fighting,” imprisoned journalist Sokolov said from a metal cage in the courtroom.

His trial drew criticism from several media rights agencies including the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Memorial in Russia.

“This sentence is disgraceful,” said Johann Bihr, who heads RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

“By persisting with this prosecution despite two years of pre-trial detention, vacillating allegations, no hard evidence and an Orwellian charge, the judicial authorities have just reinforced the impression that Alexander Sokolov is being persecuted because his journalist activities were a source of irritation,” Bihr added.

Before his arrest, Sokolov researched the alleged embezzlement of EUR 1.32 billion (USD 1.55 billion) from public coffers during the construction of a new space port. The space center was considered a brainchild of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia ranked 148 out of 180 countries on RSF’s 2017 Press Freedom Index.

“The oppressive climate at the national level encourages powerful provincial officials far from Moscow to crack down even harder on their media critics,” RSF said in its 2017 global report on press freedom.

Latest Victims

On the same day that Alexander Sokolov given a long prison term in Russia, the government of Turkey issued arrest warrants for 35 journalists and media professionals and at least nine were arrested in a series of raids, DW reported.

The new batch of targeted journalist were wanted for alleged connections to Pennsylvania-based Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, and his powerful movement Hizmet.

Gulen is accused by Turkish President Recep Erdogan of organizing the failed military coup attempt of July 15, 2016, and Erdogan’s government refers to Hizmet and the Gulenists as FETO (“Fethullahist Terrorist Organization”).

Gulen, who was a close ally of Erdogan until 2013, has repeatedly denied any involvement in the failed military coup.

One of those arrested was Burak Ekici, who runs the secular left-wing newspaper Birgun.

Ekici was just the latest victim of a widespread crackdown in Turkey on journalists who are critical of Erdogan’s government.

Of the 160 journalists currently in jail in Turkey, one is German citizen Deniz Yucel. A writer for Die Welt newspaper, Yucel stands accused of terrorism charges. In spite of Germany’s insistence, Ankara has refused to release him.

On Thursday, Turkish security services also carried out several raids, looking for journalists and other opposition voices accused of using the banned Bylock messaging app. The government says that the app was used by Gulen and his supporters to organize the coup attempt.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey at 155 out of 180 countries in its press freedom index.

Turkey has been engaged in a long-standing diplomatic spat with Germany over a wide range of issues, including the crackdown on the media, and its relations with the United States also appear to have been strained by Ankara’s demands for Gulen’s extradition, and other disputes.

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