Turkey can hardly claim a glorious history in terms of press freedom. But even by the standards of the country’s turbulent political past, the soaring number of trials, detentions and convictions of journalists are setting a terrifying precedent.
In 2012 a monumental case dubbed the “KCK press trial” made the headlines as the country’s biggest media trial: 46 journalists, 36 of whom remained in custody for between a few months and two-and-a-half years, were accused of being link to the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), a semi-clandestine organisation that was alleged to be the “urban wing” of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Six years after it began, and with all the suspects released during successive hearings, the trial continues to drag on at a lethargic pace. The latest hearing held on 19 January 2018 hardly made the news.
However, the seeming inertia shouldn’t be interpreted as a good omen. A lawyer representing the accused journalists stressed that the KCK press trial was the model for the many trials opened against journalists and news outlets in the wake of the failed July 2016 coup. “We weren’t surprised when we read the indictment against the Cumhuriyet newspaper,” lawyer Özcan Kılıç told Mapping Media Freedom, referring to the ongoing media trial that has drawn the most public attention. “Those are the exact same allegations that were levelled against those in the KCK press trial. In fact, the KCK press trial is used as a template against all unwanted organisations. Yesterday it was the Kurds, now it’s social democrats. Tomorrow? Who knows?”
Reports on abuse of child convicts used as evidence
The journalists on trial in the KCK case all worked for pro-Kurdish news outlets, including Dicle News Agency (DİHA), as well as the dailies Özgür Gündem and Azadiya Welat, all of which were shuttered by decree following the declaration of a state of emergency in July 2016. Because the prosecution failed to pin any concrete evidence on the accused journalists, their routine professional work was exploited to substantiate the charges.
“The trial didn’t contain any legal allegations, but from the government’s perspective, it was an operation that brought up political allegations,” said Çağdaş Kaplan, a former reporter for DİHA who was among the journalists remanded in detention pending trial. “If you looked at the evidence in the indictment, a great majority of the allegations against journalists were based on news reports, articles or interviews that had their bylines in their outlets, or were based on the communications they had with their sources,” Kaplan, who now works for the online news website Gazete Karınca, told Mapping Media Freedom.
Evrim Kepenek, another former DİHA reporter, joined Kaplan in stressing that the KCK press trial represents a grim milestone in the use of journalistic work as criminal evidence. “None of us denied that we worked at that agency or covered those news stories. Our news agency paid taxes, distributed press cards, registered with social security and had reporters who would be free to join the Turkish Journalists’ Union,” she said.
The evidence against the journalists included news reports unrelated to the KCK trials or even inoffensive articles. In a notorious twist, the coverage of a child abuse case at the Pozantı Juvenile Detention Centre was included in the indictment, which accused the journalists of reporting stories that could “damage the image of the state” and “humiliate the Turkish state in the eyes of the public”. The lead reporter on the story, Özlem Ağuş, remained in custody for two years because of her work.
Water sleeps, but the state never rests
The investigations launched into journalists were part of a wider crackdown on Kurdish politicians and political activists that began in 2009. There were two other mass trials ongoing: 205 Kurdish politicians are on trial in Istanbul, while another 175 defendants are being tried by a Diyarbakır court.
On 20 December 2011 police launched operations on the Istanbul offices of many pro-Kurdish outlets, detaining 49 people and seizing news material. Some 36 journalists were arrested after four days of interrogation on 24 December. Some 44 journalists were initially charged before two colleagues were added to the list.
Kılıç, the lawyer, said they referred to the concept of “Enemy Criminal Law” to refer to the legal cases. “It’s a reflection of the mind of the state. This is how it works: You identify your enemy and you make a terrorist out of them,” he said.
Kılıç, who also represents the Diyarbakır-based Özgür Gündem, the most influential Kurdish newspaper published in Turkey until it was shuttered by an emergency decree in August 2016, said the ongoing cases against the daily demonstrated the same mentality. Referring to a case in which the newspaper’s former editor-in-chief, İnan Kızılkaya, and intellectuals who showed solidarity with the outlet, such as acclaimed author Aslı Erdoğan and writer Necmiye Alpay, face aggravated life sentences, Kılıç said: “The exact same template as the KCK press trial was used. Water sleeps, but the state never rests.”
Lawyers are now awaiting a decision from the European Court of Human Rights, which is expected to weigh in on whether the journalists’ freedom of expression was violated. A decision in favour of the journalists could ensure they are not convicted in a Turkish court, according to the lawyers.
Police chief and judge imprisoned
However, the legal system itself has experienced seismic changes in recent years. First, the Turkish government abolished the specially authorised heavy penal courts in March 2014 as part of a “peace process” with the Kurdish political movement. The court overseeing the KCK press trial was one of them. However, the constitutional court rejected demands for a retrial by defence lawyers, even though the court agreed to rehear other important cases, such as the Ergenekon military coup case.
To rub salt into the wound, the police chief who ordered the arrests of the Kurdish journalists and the lead judge overseeing their case were subsequently accused of being members of the Gülen movement. Once a close ally of the ruling Justice and Development Party, the movement led by US-based Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen was accused of staging several plots to overthrow the government, including the July 15, 2016, coup attempt. The movement has since been declared a terrorist organisation called “FETÖ”.
The police chief, Yurt Atayün, has been in custody since the government began purging suspected Gülenists from within the state in 2014, while the head judge, Ali Alçık, was arrested a few days after the coup attempt.
But while the government quickly moved to overturn other trials that were allegedly fabricated by the Gülen movement, it has not done so in the KCK press trial.
“The trial should have already been dismissed because ordinary news reports and phone conversations – the kind that every reporter makes – were presented as evidence. On top of it, those who smeared us were found to be FETÖ members. It should have been dismissed without further ado, but it hasn’t been yet,” Kepenek said.
‘Current situation much more severe’
Even if the trial continues despite the seeming collapse of the prosecution’s case, that doesn’t mean the journalists will ultimately be acquitted, Kaplan said, noting that the Turkish government defended itself to the European Court of Human Rights by continuing to insist that the journalists were “terrorists”. “Even though the defendants are journalists, this doesn’t mean that they are not terrorists,” Turkey stated.
“The trial is not continuing as a formality but as a way to threaten. We are continuing to do our job but face several years in prison,” Kaplan said.
For her part, Kepenek expresses concern that the situation today is becoming inexorably worse. Kepenek, a reporter for the pro-Kurdish and feminist Jinnews online news outlet, notes that access to their website was blocked five times in just one week in late January. Journalist Zehra Doğan, the founder of Jinnews and the winner of the 2017 Freedom of Thought Award from the Swiss-based Freethinkers organisation, is also in jail for paintings that portrayed the Turkish army’s crackdown on Kurdish provinces in late 2014 and early 2015.
“We are experiencing a much more severe process,” Kepenek said. “The allegations in the KCK press trial may have collapsed, but now they don’t even need to present allegations. It was possible to sentence my friend Nedim Türfent to over eight years in prison for reporting on the conflict in Hakkâri. What they call proof is news stories. In other words, our reporting is way beyond the process of being declared a crime: It has legally become a ‘crime.’”
In March 2012, less than two months after an operation against Kurdish media outlets, the then-prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said those arrested were “terrorists, not journalists” for not carrying the prime minister’s “yellow press card”. Now, six years later, he repeated the exact same words during a joint press conference last month with French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris. Yet in the meantime, journalists whom he described as “terrorists” have been freed while those who prosecuted them are now imprisoned on terror charges.
The KCK press trial may be a showcase example that allegations won’t stand the test of time even if politicians’ tactics remain the same – even as the journalists stressed the importance of solidarity.
“Those who remained silent back then are getting their share of the pressure today. This is why we should understand that both the pressure against the Kurdish media in 2011 and the pressure under the state of emergency are attacks against journalism,” Kaplan said.
If anything, the pressure has even emboldened many journalists, Kepenek added. “Journalists’ pens don’t break when they arrest them; they sharpen even more. Governments fail to understand that.”