Protesters against the KCK press trial marched in Istanbul in January 2012. (Photo: DIHA News Agency)
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.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Mapping Media Freedom” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-times-circle” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]
Since 24 May 2014, Mapping Media Freedom’s team of correspondents and partners have recorded and verified more than 3,850 violations against journalists and media outlets.
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Yeni Bir Şarkı Söylemek Lazım, Video, 2016, Işıl Eğrikavuk
Asena Günal is the program coordinator of Depo which is a center for arts and culture at Tophane, Istanbul. She is one of the co-founders of Siyah Bant, a research platform that documents censorship in the arts in Turkey.
“Is it just me? I don’t think so, but these days I’m in a state where I don’t know what to hold on to, what to do. I push myself to continue my work. Should I continue with art, or should I channel myself to more urgent things; that’s how suffocated I feel,” Hale Tenger, a prominent contemporary artist from Turkey, said in a roundtable discussion published in the Istanbul Art News.1 This pessimism reflects the general mood of artists and many other intellectuals in Turkey, a country that has experienced incidents so numerous in the past year that they could fill decades.
Since July 2015, almost 300 people have been killed and thousands wounded in various attacks by IS and the Kurdistan Freedom Eagles (TAK). After the elections in June 2015, in which the Kurdish party passed the 10% threshold and AKP lost its single party position, president Erdoğan pushed for another election. In November 2015, the AKP won the election and ended the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The government put severe limitations on the Kurdish and pro-peace opposition. A total of 2,212 academics, who signed a petition to condemn the state violence in the southeast of Turkey, have been targeted by Erdoğan, received threats, have been faced with criminal and disciplinary investigations, and four of them were detained and jailed for about a month. A growing number of academics have been dismissed or suspended, some were forced to resign and had to leave the country. Almost two thousand lawsuits have been filed against people alleged to have insulted the president online or offline.2
In January 2016, two members of the art community were arrested and then sued for participating in the peaceful demonstration “I am Walking for Peace” in Diyarbakır. The march was organised to protest state violence in the Kurdish region and ask for the restarting of the peace process. Artists Pınar Öğrenci and Atalay Yeni were arrested and then released conditionally. Their court cases still continue.
The impact of the recommencement of the war has made itself felt in various fields and ways. The cancellation of the exhibition “Post-Peace” in February 2016 shows the difficulty of expressing critical views on state policies. The exhibition curated by an Amsterdam-based curator Katia Krupennikova was cancelled by the institution Aksanat just five days before the opening, with the director citing the rising tension and the mourning after another bombing in Turkey as the reason. Given that other events went on as scheduled, many thought one of the video works in the exhibition, critical of the dirty war policies of the Turkish state against the Kurdish guerilla was considered risky by Aksanat.3 This was one of the incidents in which the state itself did not act, and actors in the artistic community took on this role. It created a discussion in the art scene about how to struggle in times of repression.4
In April 2016, the screen of the public art project YAMA on a hotel roof was shut down by the Istanbul municipality on the basis of an anonymous complaint, claiming that the work of artist Işıl Eğrikavuk, a video animation, projecting the slogan “Finish up your apple, Eve!”, insulted religious sensibilities. When pressed, the municipality cited “visual pollution” as the reason for discontinuing the screening. This turn illustrates a strategy by the national and local government to legitimise their acts of censorship as purely procedural and administrative actions. After Eğrikavuk made a statement, YAMA’s curator Övül Durmuşoğlu declared the project’s support for the artist. Durmuşoğlu organised a meeting to discuss the case and invited Egrikavuk, legal consultants and people from the art scene. In the following days, Eğrikavuk did a performance based on this restraint. Both the meeting and the performance attracted a wide audience.
Even before the coup attempt of 15 July, there was such an atmosphere where people were worried about terrorist attacks, human rights violations, and limitations on freedom of expression. The coup attempt left 246 citizens and 24 coup planners dead and a nation deeply traumatised. The Gülen movement is accused of being behind the last coup attempt. The coup attempt was followed by a State of Emergency which allowed the cabinet under the chairmanship of the president to issue decrees that have the force of law.5 Unsurprisingly, Erdoğan has been using the attempt as an opportunity to eliminate critical voices.
After the coup attempt, Erdoğan called the people to “Democracy Watch”-meetings. The biggest and final meeting, was the one at Yenikapı on 7 August 2016.7 Erdoğan invited popular figures, like singers, actors, and actresses to join the meeting. Pop singer Sıla announced on social media that although she was against the coup she would not be part of such a “show” and would not participate in the big meeting in Yenikapı. Sıla was the only figure brave enough to make such a declaration and not step back. But this resulted in the cancellation of her concerts in five different cities. Many people supported her by sharing her music videos and their own photos with an album of Sıla online.
Theatre actor Genco Erkal’s company “Dostlar Tiyatrosu” was banned from performing a play based on the writings of Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet and Bertolt Brecht. It was going to be performed in the garden of Kadıköy High School but the school cancelled the contract due to security reasons. It was obvious that security was not the issue and the school was under pressure from the Ministry of Education because of Genco Erkal’s critical stance. After protests of the theater company and members of the main opposition party (CHP), who brought the case to the Parliament, the Governorate lifted the ban.
Municipal and state theaters have been under a tight grip for some time and there have been ongoing discussions about privatisation of these institutions. The State of Emergency not only aimed at Gülenists who were accused of being part of the planning of the coup but also many artists with apparent oppositional stance were affected. On 1 August, the Istanbul Municipality fired 20 people, including director Ragıp Yavuz, actor Kemal Kocatürk, and actress Sevinç Erbulak from the Municipal Theatre based on the decree law number 667 which was announced after the declaration of the State of Emergency. They were not even granted an explanation for why they lost their jobs, but only received a vague reference to supposedly having failed “the evaluation criteria”8. Obviously, they did not have any connection with coup plotters. Eleven of them have been reinstated in their former positions.
Besides bans and purges, the State of Emergency has enabled the government to re-regulate the organisational structure of the state. A new law that would bring the privatisation of State Theatre, State Opera and Ballet, Atatürk Cultural Center, and Turkish Historical Society was discussed in Parliament. Many people from the field of theatre, opera and ballet expressed their concern that the State of Emergency might be utilised to bring privatisation after years of discussion on instating an independent arts council.
It is now common for the members of the ruling party to randomly target artists, writers, or academics in order to intimidate wider cultural milieu. A recent example is from the field of contemporary arts: In September 2016, an AKP MP Bülent Turan targeted the curator of the Çanakkale Biennial Beral Madra and called on the Çanakkale Municipality (run by CHP) not to work with her. The accusation was being critical of Erdoğan, and hence -so the argument went further- being “pro-coup”. Madra became a target because of her critical tweets and Facebook posts. Being critical of Erdoğan has long been risky but now it is associated with being “pro-coup”. Beral Madra withdrew from her position as to not put the Biennial at risk. Then the organising institution announced that the biennial would be cancelled altogether. They were saddened by the current political atmosphere, which did not place art as a primary point of concern. The CHP-run municipality and many people from the art scene expressed concern over the cancellation, highlighting instead the potential of art to counter the authoritarian discourse of AKP and expressing their wishes for the Biennial to go ahead as planned.
Despite this rising authoritarianism and the pessimistic atmosphere, Turkey’s culture and art scene will continue its struggle. Last week there were many openings in different galleries around Istanbul and almost all of them were crowded. People from the art scene are in need of each other more than ever, aware of the vital importance of solidarity in times of hardship. Film, music, dance and performance festivals started to take place, their posters filling the streets. So I would like to finish with another quote from the same issue of Istanbul Art News, by Deniz Artun,9 the director of Ankara Galeri Nev, as I tend to share its optimistic sentiment: “I guess that art history has shown us time and again just how deep the traces left by exhibitions, artworks, artists emerging with ‘pertinacity’ will be; not those amidst freedoms and prosperity, but those coming forth among fears and uncertainties that are burdensome for all of us.”
September 2016, no. 34.
Although many have been dropped after the attempted coup d’état in a show of good will they nonetheless can be said to have had a chilling effect on oppositional voices.
According to the Turkish Constitution, the Council of Ministers, which is led by the President, can declare a State of Emergency based on “widespread acts of violence aimed at the destruction of the free democratic order.” It must be approved by Parliament and allows the ministers to pass decrees that have the force of law, although they can be overruled by Parliament. It gives the state the right to derogate certain rights, including freedom of movement, expression and association, during times of war or a major public emergency.
The President of the European Council
General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union
Rue de la Loi/Wetstraat 175
Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
Stavros Lambrinidis, EU Special Representative for Human Rights
Elmar Brok, Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs
Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations
Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament
Dear President Tusk,
We, the undersigned press freedom and media organisations, are writing ahead of the upcoming meeting between EU leaders and Ahmet Davutoğlu, Prime Minister of Turkey, to express our concern over the collapse of media freedom in Turkey.
In the past six months, we have recorded 50 incidents in clear breach of international standards with regards to media freedom and pluralism in the country. These violations include the recent government takeovers of the Feza media group and the Koza İpek Group; the prosecution and jailing of daily Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül on politically motivated charges of terrorism, espionage and revealing classified information; the police raids of Bugün TV; the assault of journalist Ahmet Hakan; and the blocking of Dicle News Agency’s website.
Many of these violations took place against the backdrop of the migration and refugee crisis or are related to reporting on sensitive issues such as the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or Turkey’s security operations in the south. Hence we believe the Council has the mandate to address these violations during the specific working session on EU-Turkey cooperation.
This mandate stems from the Council’s commitment to the rights to freedom of expression including freedom of the press, which was reaffirmed when adopting the EU Human Rights Guidelines on “freedom of expression online and offline” on 12 May 2014. By doing so, the Council pledged that “through its external policy instruments, the EU intends to help address and prevent violations of these rights in a timely, consistent and coherent manner.”
The guidelines also state that “all appropriate EU external financial instruments should be used to further protect and promote freedom of opinion and expression online as well as offline.”
While we welcome the fact that you discussed the situation of the media in Turkey with Prime Minister Davutoğlu last week, we believe the EU must not reach a deal without a specific conditionality clause that requires Turkey to improve the environment for freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
When meeting Prime Minister Davutoğlu on 18 March 2016, you have the unique opportunity to not only discuss the press freedom situation in Turkey, but to bring forth concrete measures that Turkey ought to take in order to start reversing its unrelenting crackdown on the media. Without taking these measures Ankara cannot and must not be considered a trustful strategic partner for the European Union. Specifically, we ask that you make any EU-Turkey agreement conditional on the release of the more than dozen journalists currently jailed for their work; the immediate return of the media outlets belonging to the Feza and Koza İpek groups to their rightful owners and editorial boards; and the abandonment of Turkey’s official practice of using vague anti-terror laws to equate press coverage with criminal activity.
At a time when the very essence of the European Union is questioned, it is critical to show unity and coherence over one of its core foundations: human rights, and in particular freedom of opinion and expression, which are fundamental elements of democracy.
Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship
David Diaz-Jogeix, Director of Programmes, Article 19
William Horsley, Vice President and Media Freedom Representative, Association of European Journalists
Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists
Jo Glanville, Director, English Pen
Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, President, European Federation of Journalists
Barbara Trionfi, Executive Director, International Press Institute
Carles Torner, Executive Director, PEN International
Christophe Deloire, Executive Director, Reporters Without Borders
Deborah Bonetti, President, Foreign Press Association in London
The top of Frederike Geerdink’s blog, Kurdish Matters, still reads: ‘The only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir’. The Dutch reporter was the only foreign journalist in Turkish Kurdistan until 9 September 2015 when she was deported from the country she lived and worked for nine years.
“There I went in a military convoy, first from Yüksekova to Hakkari, then from Hakkari to Van,” Geerdink wrote a few days later. “As the soldiers were playing loud, rousing nationalist music, I realised that I had turned into a PKK target, being transported on a dark mountainous Kurdistan road in a military vehicle with windows too small to see the starry sky.”
From Van, she’d fly to Istanbul where she’d be forced on a plane back to her The Netherlands. A couple of days earlier she had been arrested while traveling with and reporting on the activities of a group of Kurdish activists who call themselves the Human Shield Group. She was accused of illegally entering a restricted zone and engaging “in an act that helped a terrorist organisation”.
After nine years in Turkey, three of which were in Kurdistan, Geerdink had lost her second home. “I left my heart in Kurdistan,” she posted on Facebook after she’d landed at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. “I don’t know when, but I will return.”
In the same week when Geerdink was deported, the English version of her book, The Boys are Dead, about the Roboski massacre and the Kurdish question in Turkey, was launched. “A coincidence,” she told Index on Censorship. “I don’t think the Turkish government had planned to help me promote my book.”
A few weeks after her ordeal, she was living a nomadic life in The Netherlands, moving from place to place, staying with friends or family, not really feeling at home anywhere. “I don’t want to be here,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, everyone is really kind, but I don’t belong here anymore. I want to be there.”
Reporting on the position of Kurds in Turkey is exceptionally difficult. Prominent journalists have been fired over their coverage of negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Kurdish and Turkish journalists are often targeted by the police and courts, although it is rare for a foreign journalist to be singled out.
Back in January 2015, Geerdink was arrested by the Turkish authorities for the first time. Her house was searched, she was briefly detained and faced up to five years in prison for ‘terrorist propaganda’. Her detention was condemned worldwide and she was acquitted of the charges in April. Her deportation just a few months later came as a big shock.
Now that even foreign journalists are being targeted, Geerdink said, shows just how bad things are for the position of Kurds in Turkey. “I was the only journalist based there and now there’s one less witness on the ground. And the fewer the witnesses, the more the state has a free hand.”
She added that her treatment should be a warning to others. “They are saying: ‘watch where you go or we’ll kick you out’.” On the other hand, she thinks her deportation brings a lot of negative publicity onto the Turkish government and how they treat journalists, which can be used to put more pressure on the authorities.
In September, two UK-based reporters for VICE were arrested while reporting in Diyarbakir. Although they were released, their Iraqi colleague remains in jail. Seven local journalists are currently detained in the country, many of whom are Kurds. Being a foreigner, Geerdink said the spotlight is on her, but there are many Kurds in prison who nobody knows about, and they deserve the same amount of publicity. “For them it is a matter of life and death.”
Geerdink hopes to return to Turkish Kurdistan as soon as she’s allowed back in. Her lawyers are working hard to appeal the verdict on her deportation. Meanwhile, she is focussing on Syrian Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdistan and Kurds in Europe.
“I will still be Kurdistan correspondent no matter where I am based.”