May 9, 2015

'Freedom of expression held captive in Silivri Prison along with Hidayet Karaca’

According to employees and managers at the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group, whose chairman, Hidayet Karaca, remains behind bars in İstanbul's Silivri Prison despite a recent court decision to grant his release pending trial, he is being held captive along with freedom of expression in Turkey as there are no legal grounds for him to be kept under arrest.

Although the İstanbul 32nd Court of First Instance on April 25 ruled for the release of journalist Karaca and 63 police officers, who have been kept in pre-trial detention for months despite a lack of evidence to substantiate their incarceration, the court's ruling was not enforced by the public prosecutors. The move is hard to explain legally and is another blow to the principle of adherence to the rule of law in Turkey.

On the request of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the Bakırköy 2nd High Criminal Court in İstanbul ordered the detention of judges Mustafa Başer and Metin Özçelik, who ruled for the release of Karaca and the 63 police officers. The judges were then arrested on May 1. Moreover, another judge who was temporarily appointed to the İstanbul 32nd Court of First Instance by the HSYK ruled to revoke the release order.

Karaca, who is currently being held without indictment and with no reason for the recent extension of his detainment, was arrested as part of a government-orchestrated major media crackdown on Dec. 14, 2014, just three days before the first anniversary of massive corruption investigations revealed to the public on Dec. 17 and 25, 2013, which implicated prominent politicians, ministers, businessmen and people among the inner circles of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The 63 police officers also include those who took part in the operations during the corruption investigations in December 2013 and were arrested as part of government-backed operations against police forces in 2014.

In the Dec. 14 crackdown, which targeted 27 people including scriptwriters and a graphic designer, Karaca and three former police chiefs were arrested on charges of leading a terrorist network, while other detainees, including Zaman Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı, were released pending trial.

President Erdoğan and AK Party circles claim that a “parallel structure” within the state tried to overthrow the ruling government with the graft probes. Parallel structure or parallel state is a term invented by Erdoğan to refer to the followers and sympathizers of the faith-based Gülen movement, popularly known as the Hizmet movement, which is inspired by the views of Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, especially those who are in the police forces and judiciary.

The European Parliament, the US Senate and House of Representatives, the World Editors Forum, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, politicians and civil society organizations in and outside Turkey: all have condemned the government crackdown on media, and Karaca's arrest with reports and letters criticizing the AK Party government.

In one of the harshest warnings to Turkey, the European Parliament in Strasbourg approved a resolution in January with 551 votes for, 11 against and 31 abstentions, calling on Turkey to have respect for the rule of law and the freedom of the media, a core principle of democracy. Elsewhere, 74 lawmakers from the US Senate sent a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry in March to express concern over what they called "an affront to the basic principles of democracy" in Turkey.

The family-oriented broadcasts of Samanyolu TV and the reliability of its news channels have been appreciated by all governments since its establishment in 1993. They have also won awards from the leading organizations in Turkey and abroad. Until 2013 it was among the media groups least warned or fined by the media watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK). RTÜK, which is dominated by five government-appointed members out of a total of nine, has fined the Samanyolu Group more than 80 times since December 2013 compared with the group's previous record of receiving only three fines in 20 years.

The Samanyolu Group has been fined more than TL 5 million by RTÜK and the Supreme Election Board (YSK) since Dec. 17, 2013 because of its TV shows criticizing the government and failing to remain impartial prior to the local and presidential elections in 2014. However, almost none of the pro-government media organizations and state-run broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) have been fined by RTÜK and YSK despite the fact that they also adopted a strict pro-government editorial policy and refused to let government critics appear on their TV shows during the same period.

Samanyolu Broadcasting Group Vice President Rıdvan Kızıltepe, who is in charge during Karaca's absence, thinks the Samanyolu Group's stance is represented by the words uttered by Karaca when he was taken into custody in December 2013, saying, “Free media cannot be silenced.” According to Kızıltepe, it is obvious to foreign politicians, academics, journalists and people who observe Turkey from abroad that freedom of expression and the press in Turkey was seriously violated with the Dec. 14, 2014 police operations against the free media.

Underlining the helplessness of AK Party government representatives while they try to answer questions overseas about the media crackdown, Kızıltepe alleged that the AK Party government halfheartedly sent officials to the European Parliament and other Western institutions to soften the reports criticizing the Turkish government's policies against freedoms. “However, Karaca's letters from Silivri Prison reached everyone across the world because they were welcomed by and appeared in leading media outlets.” Kızıltepe said.

Samanyolu TV News Editor Metin Yıkar also told Sunday's Zaman that he witnessed Karaca's enthusiasm during their meetings in Silivri Prison, asking his colleagues and workers at the Samanyolu Group to stand firm against the undemocratic and anti-freedom policies of the government. He said that Karaca, who is sharing a prison cell with police chiefs Ali Fuat Yılmazer and Tufan Ergüder, is working on a book about his experience of being caught up in the unlawful process and crackdowns on free media.

TMSF-appointed administration of Bank Asya halted ads to Samanyolu

Talking about the government's impositions and pressures on the Samanyolu Group, Kızıltepe said the new administration of Turkey's largest Islamic lender, Bank Asya -- established by people inspired by the Gülen movement -- which has been under the control of the state-run Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) since Feb. 3, has stopped giving advertisements to the media outlets under the group. Almost all state-run institutions including Türk Telekom, Turkcell and Turkish Airlines (THY) also stopped placing their ads with media owned by the Samanyolu Group after the Dec. 17, 2013.

Accreditation bans on the group's journalists, barring TV soap opera filming in AK Party municipalities, cash fines and broadcasting bans from RTÜK and the YSK are some of the oppressive policies against the Samanyolu Group, Kızıltepe stated. He said the group is still able to run its operations but unable to invest in technological infrastructure because of financial limitations. “We [Samanyolu Group] have never used state funds so had no previous debts to any state institution and believe that these difficult times will end soon.”

Reiterating that the Samanyolu Group's lawyers are documenting all the illegalities against the group, Kızıltepe underlined that while the implementation of laws might be perfunctory, the law is not blind, and those who have violated laws will be punished.

Turkey's image abroad totally damaged by government policies restricting freedoms

According to Yıkar, freedom of expression is highly valued by the West, and the AK Party government's policies restricting those freedoms and the media is damaging Turkey's image abroad, leaving the country alone when it comes to Turkey's relations with other countries. Arresting a journalist is the biggest assault on freedom of expression in the West, noted Yıkar.

Because of the aggressive attitude of the ruling AK Party government and President Erdoğan, Turkish officials are not taken seriously in Western countries, and the Middle Eastern countries that once treated Turkey as a model of democracy have turned their backs, he believes. “The people of Turkey are getting poorer every day as Turkey's exports to almost all countries are decreasing,” Yıkar said.

Despite Turkey's deteriorating image in the West, Yıkar said that civil society organizations and politicians from Western countries are inviting Samanyolu representatives and other government-critical media organizations to express their opinions about developments in Turkey.

The lights and TV in Karaca's office remain on

The lights and the TV in Karaca's office at the Samanyolu Group building are always kept on during workdays as they were when Karaca was in his office to hope that he will be back at work soon.

Kızıltepe said Karaca is Samanyolu's best viewer as he closely follows Samanyolu's programs and news channels from his prison cell. The company has 14 broadcast channels in Turkish, English, Arabic and Kurdish, as well as popular radio stations and news portals.

When asked about Karaca's views on the Samanyolu Group's editorial policy since his arrest, Kızıltepe referred to a recent court ruling rejecting an appeal for Karaca's release by his lawyers, saying the editorial policy of the group remains unchanged. “It shows that we are on the true path of what Karaca wanted,” he added.

According to Kızıltepe, the most dramatic thing is that many people are unable to call Karaca, who served as the president of Television Broadcasters' Association (TVYD) from 2009 to 2011, to express their regret about his arrest and incarceration because they are scared of the government.

Published on Today's Zaman, 09 May 2015, Saturday