December 21, 2014

‘Reasonable suspicion’ paves way for crackdown on media

The recent detainment of managers from two of Turkey's leading media outlets following the enactment of a law that allows the judiciary to issue arrest warrants based only on “reasonable suspicion” of wrongdoing is a sign that the government -- hard-pressed by allegations of corruption -- will use the law to repress the media and dissidents.

Ekrem Dumanlı, editor-in-chief of Turkey's best-selling daily Zaman, and Samanyolu Broadcasting Group General Manager Hidayet Karaca were taken into custody last Sunday as part of a government-orchestrated police operation against the Hizmet movement. Dumanlı and Karaca were detained along with 28 others in a police operation that targeted journalists, TV scriptwriters and former police officers. The police crackdown came right after the judicial package that set the stage for prosecutors to issue arrest warrants based on “reasonable suspicion” rather than solid evidence was approved by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The crackdown on the media has been harshly condemned by press organizations as well as by major international actors for having dealt a heavy blow to the freedom of the press and individual freedoms. The police operation has also been criticized by the opposition as an attempt to intimidate those who have given the government a hard time by keeping sweeping claims of corruption on the country's agenda.

As the court issued a confidentiality order regarding the investigation, neither the lawyers nor the suspects are allowed to see the content of the investigation file. The suspects were questioned whether they were part of a plot -- in collaboration with the police -- aimed at imprisoning an Islamist group known as Tahşiyeciler (Annotators).

Several lines uttered by characters in an episode of “Tek Türkiye” (Undivided Turkey) -- a popular television series, the final episode of which was broadcast on Samanyolu TV in 2009 -- were claimed to show links with the imprisonment several years ago of some of those linked with Tahşiyeciler.

Bilal Çalışır, one of Karaca's lawyers, has criticized the imposition of a confidentiality order on an investigation in which his client was questioned in relation with the series broadcast years ago. Noting that copies of the same series can be obtained easily, Çalışır has described this as “a disaster for the law.”

Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) have targeted Hizmet -- which is inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen -- accusing it of being behind the graft probes that went public in December of last year. Both the Zaman daily and the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group are affiliated with the Hizmet movement. Following the corruption probes, which revealed that Erdoğan and some of his family members may well be implicated in corruption, four Cabinet ministers left their posts.

According to the government-orchestrated investigation in which Dumanlı and Karaca are among the suspects, the case against the two was built on charges of defaming the deadly al-Qaeda-affiliated group Tahşiyeciler. The prosecutor in charge of the operation claimed that through coverage in print and broadcast media of the police raids conducted on this group in 2010, journalists had defamed the suspects, including Mehmet Doğan, the leader of Tahşiyeciler.

Directors and producers of popular television series and police officers are among the 30 people detained as part of the police operation last week. Suspects are accused of attempting to overthrow the government, and charges of terrorism and fraud also form part of the accusations.

Fikret Duran, the lawyer of Samanyolu Group's Karaca, announced that his client's right to a defense had been limited by an order from the prosecutor to reduce the numbers of lawyers working on the case. Duran complained that such a decision to put a limitation on the number of the lawyers defending a client contravenes criminal law and said that his team would file a criminal complaint regarding the violation.

The judicial package, introduced as an omnibus bill, has been much criticized by the opposition for removing freedoms. The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) appealed to the Constitutional Court last week for the cancelation of the amendments introduced by the package.

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Deputy Chairman Semih Yalçın claimed at a press conference during the week that the package did away with the rule of law. Yalçın also drew attention to the timing of the police operation, noting that it was launched immediately after Erdoğan signed into law the judicial package that has expanded police powers and increased government control over the judiciary.

The government-sponsored law made amendments to the Law on Judges and Prosecutors, giving police and prosecutors sweeping powers regarding searches, seizures, detentions and arrests while also significantly restricting the right of defense for suspects.

“Now, 77 million people in this country are reasonable suspects. Turning the whole of the population into reasonable suspects, when the real suspect is sitting in his palace, is an anti-democratic act,” the MHP's Yalçın said.

The law also restricts the rights of lawyers to examine investigation case files concerning their clients. In addition, judges will be able to seize the property of individuals, also based on "reasonable suspicion." Gazi Tanır, the lawyer of Zaman's Dumanlı, has said that because lawyers are now only allowed limited access to investigation files, they do not really know what their clients are charged with.

The European Council has said the police raids and the detention of journalists and media representatives in Turkey call into question the Turkish government's respect for the freedom of the media, which it characterized as a “core principle of democracy.”

Freedom House, a US-based nongovernmental organization which advocates for democracy, political freedom and human rights, has called on the Turkish government to end the crackdown on free speech in Turkey. It also said that the detention of prominent journalists from Zaman and Samanyolu appears to be “government retribution against journalists reporting on corruption and criticizing the government.”

The organization also called on the EU to freeze talks on Turkey's accession to the union.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 21 December 2014, Sunday