May 29, 2015

Turkey’s journalists challenged by growing judicial, political pressure

It is an almost-daily occurrence in Turkey for journalists who have been critical of the government to appear before a judge, either on charges of insulting a state official or making terrorist propaganda, and Thursday was not an exception, as several journalists appeared in court while others were summoned to testify as suspects in ongoing investigations.

Dozens of journalists are being prosecuted in Turkey for simply making statements that would fall under the scope of freedom of the press and freedom of expression in a true and functioning democracy.

On Thursday, journalist Erkam Tufan Aytav, who works for Bugün TV, testified to İstanbul Deputy Chief Public Prosecutor Fuzuli Aydoğdu as a suspect at the İstanbul Courthouse. Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse after giving his testimony, Aytav did not give any information about the content of the investigation because it was confidential. He only said the prosecutor asked him about the recent public statements of Hüseyin Gülerce, who launched a defamation campaign against the faith-based Gülen –or Hizmet -- movement after parting ways with it.

“I learned that the prosecutor was also personally informed about the slanderous accusations and lies told by Hüseyin Gülerce in the media. [Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV) President] Mustafa Yeşil and I were included in the investigation file because of these accusations. I was asked questions about these accusations,” Aytav told reporters.

Aytav is also the deputy president of the GYV, which is inspired by the Gülen movement, against which the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government launched a battle following the eruption of a major corruption scandal on Dec. 17, 2013. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was the prime minister at the time, and the AK Party government have since then been accusing the Gülen movement of establishing a “parallel state” and masterminding the corruption probe to overthrow the government. The movement strongly denies the accusations.

The corruption scandal, in which senior government members were implicated, prompted the AK Party government to follow more repressive policies against its critics, which includes some journalists.

On Thursday, another journalist, Aytekin Gezici, was also in court at the first hearing of a trial launched against him over charges of insulting President Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ on social media.

Gezici was detained last October and his house in Adana province was searched based on a "reasonable suspicion" clause introduced in a new government judicial package that was yet to be approved in Parliament.

Speaking to reporters in front of the Ankara Courthouse, Gezici recalled that he was detained and his house was raided by the police based on “reasonable suspicion” even before the relevant judicial package went into effect.

He said he told the judge that he did not insult any of the state officials in his tweets.

Gezici's lawyer Yusuf Özer said judicial authorities are not acting independently in Gezici's case, or else his trial would not be held in Ankara but in Adana, where the alleged crime took place. He said there is political pressure on prosecutors and judges to have such trials in Ankara. The lawyer also said the content of his client's tweets included criticism, not insult, adding that the government is using the judiciary as a tool to silence any opposition.

Meanwhile, journalists Mirgün Cabas, Koray Çalışkan and Banu Güven, as well as TV host Pelin Batu, were summoned by the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office to testify as part of an investigation into their social media posts regarding the killing of a public prosecutor during a hostage crisis at the İstanbul Courthouse on March 31, according to a report on the Al-Jazeera Turk website.

The public prosecutor, Mehmet Selim Kiraz, was killed by militants of the terrorist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) on March 31.

The journalists are accused of making propaganda for a terrorist organization in their tweets on the day the prosecutor was killed.

Several Turkish newspapers also face probes on the charge of spreading terrorist propaganda because they published a photo of Kiraz with a gun pointed at his head. Prime Minister Davtutoğlu has said he personally ordered a ban on reporters from media outlets that published the photo.

Journalists facing legal action in today's Turkey are not limited to these figures as there are dozens of others who are either in jail or prosecuted.

Samanyolu Broadcasting Group General Manager Hidayet Karaca was taken into custody on Dec. 14, 2014, as part of a government-backed police operation. Karaca was later arrested and remains in jail on suspicion of being a member of an armed organization. The charges against him are based on a fictional TV series that was broadcast a few years ago.

Sedef Kabaş, a TV presenter, is facing a prison sentence of up to five years for posting a tweet about a corruption probe involving high-profile individuals. Another journalist, Mehmet Baransu, is being held under arrest for publishing state documents, with the charge of revealing secret documents that are important for national security.

Karaca and Baransu have been deprived of their freedom due to the prosecutor's reluctance to prepare indictments for them.

Published on Today's Zaman, 28 May 2015, Thursday