As part of an intensified government campaign of cracking down on critical and independent media outlets in Turkey, Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of the nation's best-selling daily, has been charged with "establishing and administrating an armed organization" under the anti-terrorism law based on two op-ed pieces and one article published in his newspaper five years ago.
Hidayet Karaca, the general manager of Turkey's leading national TV station, Samanyolu, was also charged under the anti-terrorism law. The government-backed operation against these two prominent journalists and a number of other media professionals has been blasted by opposition parties and media organizations for undermining freedom of the press.
The government has also been criticized for the timing of the operation, as it came right before the anniversary of two major graft probes that were made public on Dec. 17 and 25 of last year. The government aims to divert the public's attention away from allegations of corruption, opposition parties maintain.
In what is seen by observers as politically motivated charges that clearly abuse the anti-terrorism law, Prosecutor Fuzuli Aydoğdu asked Dumanlı why he published two columns that were written by two contributors to the paper and one news story that featured a speech made by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Dumanlı responded to the charges by saying he has been professionally managing the newspaper for the last 13 years and cannot interfere with critical articles written by columnists that are regular contributors to the paper. He said columnists have the right to freedom of speech and expression.
As for the news story in 2009, which featured a warning by Gülen about the activities of the al-Qaeda-affiliated armed Tahşiyeciler (Annotators) group, Dumanlı said Gülen's public speech was posted on the Islamic scholar's own website -- Herkul.org -- and carried newsworthy items that deserved coverage on the relevant page in the newspaper. He said other newspapers, such as the Hürriyet and Vatan dailies, also covered Gülen's speech.
He noted that Zaman receives between 5,000 to 8,000 articles and wire dispatches on a daily basis and that its editors screen them and direct to relevant sections in the paper. He emphasized that as editor-in-chief, he focuses mostly on the layout and content of the first page, delegating the authority for other pages to editors in different sections, just as is done in other newspapers. “I did not consider Gülen's speech, which was featured on page three, as worthy of being introduced on the first page,” Dumanlı said.
The editor-in-chief further noted that op-ed page editors have the freedom to publish contributors' pieces based on their own judgment and that they do not necessarily ask his approval in advance. He said he does not recall the articles of Hüseyin Gülerce and Ahmet Şahin, both of whom wrote articles critical of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Tahşiyeciler group back in 2009, but underlined that op-ed editors usually seek the opinion of the newspaper's legal department if they suspect that an article may violate the law.
The questions the prosecutor asked Dumanlı have been judged by many to be strange. For example, he was interrogated over a live interview he conducted on CNN Türk, a local affiliate of CNN International, and whether he watched a popular TV series -- "Tek Türkiye" -- a fictional soap opera that features anti-terrorist battles in Turkey.
In one of the episodes, "Tek Türkiye" mentioned the Tahşiyeciler group, and Dumanlı was asked what he made of it. In response, he said he did not watch the episode but underlined that some fictional scripts aired on TV may have come true years later, not because scriptwriters wrote about it, but simply because that is how events unfolded.
Dumanlı, who has a degree in literature and is an avid film fan, told the prosecutor that he remembers an actor featured as a black president in an American series several years before Barack Obama was elected president of the US. He stressed that establishing causality between a fictional TV series and Obama's election defies logic. Dumanlı was alluding to American actor Dennis Dexter Haysbert, who was featured as an African-American president in the television series "24," produced by the Fox network.
Dumanlı also noted that Samanyolu TV, which aired "Tek Türkiye," has nothing to do with Zaman newspaper and that questions regarding the program should be directed to the general manager of the network, who was also detained as part of the government crackdown on media professionals. The director, producers and scriptwriters of the TV series were also among those who were detained on Dec. 14. The TV series always started with a disclaimer that the series was not based on actual people or events, although there were many episodes that were inspired by real-life events.
Dumanlı testified in front of Aydoğdu at the İstanbul Police Department for seven hours after 72 hours in police custody in what his lawyer described as solitary confinement before he was referred to the court on Thursday. The prosecutor charged Dumanlı with “establishing and administrating an armed organization,” which is punishable by a prison sentence of between 10 to 15 years under Turkish Penal Code (TCK) Article No. 314. He was also charged for depriving people of liberty by using force, threat and tricks, and slander. Dumanlı has denied all the charges.
The Zaman editor was asked by the prosecutor why the newspaper published reports over the closure of dershanes, which are private institutes that offer test preparation classes. He said the prep schools are important as supplementary institutions that helped students to perform better in highly competitive national university exams. The government rushed legislation from Parliament to ban the privately run prep schools in a move that has dealt a blow to the right to free enterprise in Turkey.
“I believe that students can win [places in] university by attending dershanes, and I also believe that dershanes fill a gap in the national education [system]. That is why we sincerely covered the issue in the newspaper. I also explained the issue to the then-prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] and the education minister [Nabi Avcı] in person.”
He added, “I never received any order from any person to cover the issue.”
Dumanlı was also asked about publications over successive government-backed operations targeting the police force since July of this year, and he was asked if he knows former İstanbul Police Department Counterterrorism Unit Chief Ömer Köse, former İstanbul Counterterrorism Unit Chief Yurt Atayün and others who were detained as part of these operations. In response to the prosecutor, Dumanlı said he does not know these people personally and added that the Zaman daily covered these operations so intensely because it found them newsworthy.
When asked if he had anything else to add to his testimony, Dumanlı said he was wondering what kind of charges would be directed at him before the testimony, adding: “However, I arrived at the conclusion that I should not have been detained after I heard the questions asked to me and saw the documents that were shown. This is a very saddening incident in terms of my country. I have been a journalist for 20 years. I am a person who maintains his life in front of the public. I found it very saddening that such troubles were caused just based on two columns and one report. I never committed a crime. I am not a part of any illegal organization.”
The prosecutor in charge of the Dec. 14 operation claimed that through print coverage and broadcast media about the police raids conducted on the Tahşiyeciler group in 2010, journalists had defamed the suspects, including the leader of Tahşiyeciler, Mehmet Doğan, who had openly called for an armed struggle to take over the Turkish government.
In a rather bizarre and twisted story, raids in 2010 that revealed a huge cache of weapons -- including bombs and guns -- in a safe house used by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Tahşiyeciler group were covered by many media outlets in Turkey, including CNN Türk, Habertürk, Hürriyet, Radikal and even the pro-government Sabah and Star dailies at the time. Government officials took credit for the raids, saying a threat from an important sleeper cell of al-Qaeda had been neutralized.
According to the Millet daily's breaking story on Monday, it was revealed that Turkey's intelligence agency tipped off the police on the activities of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group known as Tahşiyeciler, whose leader's defamation complaint against journalists was the basis of the recent politically orchestrated crackdown on the media.
The National Intelligence Organization (MİT) issued a warning circular to police departments in 12 provinces that detailed the dangerous activities of Tahşiyeciler. The letter, classified as secret and which included the still-pending case file against Tahşiyeciler, was dated Dec. 3, 2008.
The warning described the group as having some 5,000 members and identified the group leader as Mehmet Doğan -- also known as Molla Muhammed -- who the circular accused of exploiting religion.
MİT also sent intelligence about the group on Feb. 17 and March 30, 2009. The Counterterrorism Unit of the İstanbul Police Department forwarded the case file with all the collected information about the group to the prosecutor's office. The prosecutor then ordered the judicial investigation into Tahşiyeciler that led to raids on safe houses used by the group on Jan. 22, 2010.
Erdoğan was prime minister when the government launched a major operation on Tahşiyeciler on Jan. 22, 2010. Police raided the homes and offices of 112 people across Turkey as part of an anti-al-Qaeda operation and discovered three hand grenades, one smoke bomb, seven handguns, 18 hunting rifles, electronic parts for explosives, knives and a large cache of ammunition.
The operation targeting Tahşiyeciler was sanctioned by Oğuz Kaan Köksal, a former national police chief and current Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy. It was also authorized by Hüseyin Namal, former head of intelligence at the İstanbul Police Department, and former İstanbul Police Chief Hüseyin Çapkın.
Then-İstanbul Governor Muammer Güler, who later became the interior minister, issued a statement at the time of the raids saying that Tahşiyeciler is a radical group affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Violations of due process
In a clear sign of the serious violations of due process in the detention and arraignment hearings, the defense lawyers of detained journalists Dumanlı and Karaca have been kept in dark, preventing the lawyers from pursuing their client's rights. Following a lengthy interrogation, both journalists -- whose four-day detention is a punishment in itself -- were taken to the İstanbul Courthouse.
Samanyolu General Manager Karaca has refused to give his defense before a criminal court of peace in İstanbul, saying that the judges of these courts are not impartial. He also said that President Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ keep commenting on the investigation file regarding the Dec. 14 operation even though the investigation should be confidential. Karaca said that this shows that the judge would not be impartial at all.
“The scenario, the scriptwriter and the producer [of the film] are bad. Those who shoot this film would go bust,” Karaca's lawyer Fikri Duran told reporters on Wednesday.
Noting that the detention period was illegitimately extended for his client, Duran spoke to reporters in front of the İstanbul Police Department, where the suspects are being held and interrogated: “My client is tired and has been without sleep. He has been made to wait [to be questioned] for four days.” Duran also said that the accusations against his client are based on an audio clip that has been tampered with.
Police began to question Dumanlı and Karaca on Wednesday, the last day that they could be legally detained. Both journalists were questioned for at least seven hours. After leaving the police department, Dumanlı vowed not to bow to "Yazids" -- a reference to a despotic ruler in the eighth century whose name has been used to describe repressive leaders. Dumanlı also chanted a slogan as he was escorted away from the police department, saying that "there is no way back from democracy.”
The law has been violated in various ways during the detention period of the suspects, who were not allowed to know -- due to a confidentiality order on the investigation -- what they were accused of until they were questioned. Hasan Yılmaz, one of the prosecutors in charge of the operation, interrogated the suspects at the İstanbul Police Department rather than at the prosecutor's office, a move which is highly unusual.
Board members of the Antalya Bar Association were also in front of the police department on Wednesday. Not allowing suspects to know what they are accused of before being questioned is a violation of their rights, a member of the association told Samanyolu TV on Wednesday. “We have observed that the behavior of police officers towards us is getting tougher with each passing day,” he said, protesting that even Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of a terrorist organization, lives in better conditions.
Published on Today's Zaman, 18 December 2014, Thursday