June 1, 2015

Journalists targeted by smear campaign websites on to-be-detained list

Some well-known journalists who have been subjected to an aggressive defamation campaign by websites suspected to have ties with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) are on a list of journalists who are shortly to be detained, which was made public on Monday by a well-known social media whistleblower.

The journalists' possible detention would most likely be based on legal action they took against these websites, as a result of which they faced a counter investigation over terrorism charges.

The whistleblower, known on Twitter by the pseudonym Fuat Avni, said that some 200 people will be detained in a major sweep that has been ordered by embattled President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is reportedly furious over the publication by the Cumhuriyet daily of photos of weapons being carried to radical groups in Syria by trucks operated by Turkey's intelligence organization.

According to Fuat Avni, the government will shortly detain scores of journalists critical of the government, including Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in chief of Zaman, the country's largest circulated national daily; Bülent Keneş, the editor-in-chief of Today's Zaman; Kerim Balcı, the editor-in-chief of Turkish Review, a bimonthly news magazine; Celil Sağır, the managing editor of Today's Zaman; Faruk Mercan, the Ankara representative of Bugün TV; Adem Yavuz Arslan, the Washington bureau chief of the Bugün newspaper; Nazlı Ilıcak, a veteran columnist at Bugün; Yasemin Çongar, a former editor of Taraf daily; Ahmet Altan, a former editor-in-chief of Taraf; Emre Uslu, a columnist at Today's Zaman; and Cumhuriyet's Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar.

Many journalists on the list announced by Fuat Avni have been targeted by a defamation campaign led by a news portal named medyagundem.com, which is filled with strong anti-Semitic and anti-Western editorial content. The website tries to bring independent and critical journalists and newspapers into disrepute through lies, libel and insults, often phrased in vulgarities. Zaman editors Dumanlı, Keneş, Sağır and Balcı and journalists such as Taha Akyol, Hasan Cemal, Şahin Alpay, Aslı Aydıntaşbaş and Cengiz Çandar have all been subjected to insults that are not protected by freedom of speech legislation but rather constitute hate speech.

Figures close to the AK Party government have been accused of conducting a large-scale smear campaign against the faith-based Gülen movement -- also known as the Hizmet movement -- which is inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, media outlets close to the movement and journalists critical of the government. The campaign has been ongoing ever since a corruption scandal erupted on Dec. 17, 2013, implicating three former Cabinet ministers' sons, state bureaucrats and prominent businessmen accused of giving bribes in exchange for favors. The government has accused the Gülen movement of participating in the plot behind the corruption investigation, while the movement strongly denies the accusations.

In medyagundem.com, Keneş, for example, has been referred to as a “Zionist,” while Sağır and Balcı have been accused of being “servants” of foreign powers. The website has also said that Cumhuriyet's Dündar, who prepared a documentary about the corruption scandal, “is becoming more and more disgusting.”

The site is allegedly financed by a close relative of President Erdoğan, while the owner of the site is reported to be Tutkun Akbaş.

Some of the targeted journalists -- namely, Dumanlı, Keneş, Sağır, Balcı and Uslu -- had filed criminal complaints against the smear campaign websites Medyagündem, Medyasavar and Haber10 at the İstanbul Anatolia Chief Public Prosecutor's Office between June and December of 2013.

During the investigation conducted by the Anadolu Chief Public Prosecutor's Office, it was discovered that these news portals may have close ties with one another. Strikingly, news pieces with similar headlines have appeared on a number of these news portals. In the investigation, it was discovered that the web portals -- which had appeared to have no connection to each other -- are actually managed by the same people. All of these websites were discovered to be using the same tracking code (Google Analytics: UA-1088672) and the same commercial ID (Pub-53565857835198), according to the investigation file. However, when the investigation was made public, these codes were removed from the websites.

After the structure of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) was changed by the government last year, with thousands of police officers and some prosecutors reshuffled in a massive purge following the graft probe, the investigation file on the news portals was transferred to Prosecutor Mehmet Aydın from the Organized Crime Unit of the Anadolu Chief Public Prosecutor's Office. Only one day later, Aydın returned a verdict of non-prosecution for the file, which a prosecutor from another department had painstakingly prepared on the basis of months of police research.

That is where the legal process stopped; Zaman lawyers, inquiring about why the investigation had been halted, could acquire no more information on the outcome of their complaint. It later emerged through a story published in government-controlled media that the 400 pages of evidence against medyagundem.com had been covered up and the prosecutor's office had dismissed the case.

A similar situation arose more recently. On May 17, 2014, the government-controlled Sabah daily announced on its website that a court case had been launched against several Zaman columnists in which they were accused of belonging to a terrorist organization. An investigation in which Zaman writers were plaintiffs was rapidly shut down, after which an investigation was launched against the plaintiffs.

The counter investigation was launched following a criminal complaint by Tutkun Akbaş, thought to be the owner of medyagündem.com. Akbaş allegedly filed a complaint against three police chiefs -- Nazmi Ardıç, Ahmet Kalender and Metin Titiz -- in addition to journalists Dumanlı, Uslu, Keneş, Balcı and Sağır. Ardıç is among 29 police officers who were detained in April in what is considered to be another government-backed move against the police officers who carried out the graft probe in 2013.

It took a very long time to find out whether such a case really existed because the government-controlled media that reported confidential investigation details did not provide any details as to which prosecutor was conducting the investigation and which court had accepted the indictment. Finally, all the offices that might have been involved were contacted by lawyers.

It emerged that the Zaman lawyer investigating which court is processing the alleged lawsuit was directed by the online judiciary database -- the National Judiciary Network Project (UYAP) -- to İstanbul Courthouse Prosecutor Okan Özsoy. When the lawyer inquired about the file, the prosecutor asked whether the journalists were on the side of the “wiretappers” or “those who have been eavesdropped on” -- an absurd question and one that also clearly demonstrates that the principle that a prosecutor needs to be unbiased toward a plaintiff does not apply in the İstanbul Courthouse.

The law is very clear on who can demand or order the wiretapping of phone lines and Zaman filed a complaint concerning Prosecutor Özsoy's attitude to the HSYK. Zaman lawyers say no one can guarantee that a prosecutor who acts based on political bias over a simple complaint about a website can maintain his or her impartiality in other cases.

In the end, the prosecutor's office sent an explanation in writing to the newspaper's lawyers in which it said that the complaint against the journalists had been dismissed but they had nevertheless been listed by the UYAP as suspects by mistake. When Zaman lawyers pointed out that the mistake in the UYAP should be corrected, the prosecutor said it is not up to him to make the correction. He also refused to issue a dismissal for the individuals in the system, saying that that cannot be done since there is no ongoing legal case regarding the issue.

Zaman lawyers argued that the case clearly shows that the judiciary has become overly politicized.

Another bizarre turn in the case is that the police are now looking for a connection between the journalists who were victimized by the hate speech and an unidentified terrorist organization that also includes the police officers and the prosecutors as suspects. “This is a blatant violation and distortion of the law. If we had some connection and were able to give [instructions], why would so many columnists file criminal complaints?” Zaman's Dumanlı argued in a column in April.

“If filing complaints against slander and filing a petition by relying on legal options is a crime, how would anyone seek justice?” he asked.

Published on Today's Zaman, 01 June 2015, Monday