Turkey using terrorism legislation to gag and jail journalists
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has documented 12 cases of journalists currently being prosecuted in Turkey under terrorism legislation that prohibits questioning the security forces. They include two journalists – a former reporter for the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet (Republic) and its current editor – whose trial begins today. Manipulation of Turkey’s judicial system is undermining press freedom, RSF warns.
Reporters who cover public interest stories in Turkey increasingly risk imprisonment. Those who investigate the government’s actions with regard to Islamic State, the arms it has sent to Syria, or abuses by the security forces are systematically accused of "espionage," "terrorist propaganda," "defaming" the judicial system or the security forces or even "attacking an anti-terrorism agent." Journalists who want to report the news are under constant threat of being jailed.
In the trial opening today in Istanbul, two veteran journalists – former Cumhuriyet reporter Alican Uludağ and current editor-in-chief Olcay Büyükbaş Akça – are being prosecuted for investigative reporting that suggested that "negligence" by the security forces was to blame for the failure to prevent the two bomb attacks at Ankara’s central railway station on 10 October 2015 that left 107 dead.
Under Law 3713, Uludağ and Akça are facing up to three years in prison on a charge of "exposing anti-terrorist officers to the threat of terrorist organisations" because they reported that the security forces had stopped following an Islamic State unit that was looking for material with which to make the bombs that ended up being used in the Ankara attacks, and because they named the shop that the terrorists visiting shortly before the bombings.
Systematic appeals against acquittals
Denial of the rule of law in Turkey has increased to the point that journalists can derive no relief when they are acquitted because the prosecution invariably appeals against their acquittal and goes out of its way to ensure that the higher court convicts them.
This already happened to Uludağ and another former Cumhuriyet reporter, Duygu Güvenç. In October 2020, they were acquitted of "defaming the judicial system" for describing US priest Andrew Bronson’s release in October 2019 after negotiations with the United States as "political." But the prosecution immediately appealed, demanding prison sentences. The Istanbul provincial court is due to issue a ruling in the coming months.
Uludağ is being subjected to all-out judicial persecution. The founder of the Ankara Gazetecisi (Ankara Journalist) website, he was sentenced on 3 February to ten years in prison under recent terrorism legislation over a tweet alluding to the imprisonment of Selahattin Demirtas, the head of the pro-Kurdish party HDP. "This is how political dissidents are jailed," he tweeted under a photo of Ankara prosecutor-general Yüksel Kocaman visiting President Erdoğan, who heads the AKP party.
The judicial system’s targets include three journalists – Canan Coşkun, Cumhuriyet’s Ali Açar and BirGün’s Cansever Uğur – who are being prosecuted for identifying the riot police officer suspected of firing the teargas grenade that killed teenager Berkin Elvan during anti-government protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in the spring of 2013. At a hearing in Istanbul on 8 June that an RSF representative attended, the prosecution asked the court to jail them for three years. The next hearing is set for 7 October, when the court could issue a verdict.
The targets also include Abdurrahman Gök, a photoreporter for the Mesopotamia News Agency (MHA), who is facing possible sentences totalling 27 years in prison on charges linked to his journalism. One of his photos resulted in police officers being charged with involvement in the death of a youth, Kemal Kurkut, during the Kurdish New Year festivities in March 2017. Accused of being a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and of PKK "propaganda," Gök is due to appear in court again in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir on 30 September.
The law protecting "anti-terrorism agents" is proving to be particularly useful in ensuring impunity for government allies. The beneficiaries include President Erdoğan’s spokesman, Fahrettin Altun. After Cumhuriyet reported that he had built an illegal annex to his home on the Bosphorus, judges decided that he could be regarded as "anti-terrorism agent" with the result that four Cumhuriyet journalists – Hazal Ocak, İpek Özbey, Vedat Arık and editor Akça – are facing possible three-year jail terms over a story that has nothing to do with terrorism. The trial is due to be held in Istanbul on 24 June.
Pursued into exile
The government meanwhile refuses to abandon its attempts to exact judicial vengeance on former Cumhuriyet editor Can Dündar, who fled abroad in 2016. An Istanbul court decided on 8 June to request an Interpol red notice for his arrest in connection with a 2015 report that Turkey was sending arms to jihadist groups in Syria, for which he was sentenced in absentia last December to 27 years in prison on charges of spying and "assisting an illegal organisation."
Dündar fled the country after spending three months in prison and then narrowly escaping an armed attack outside the Istanbul palace of justice in May 2016. Now living in Germany, where he launched a news website called Özgürüz (We are free), he is currently supposed to appear in court again in Istanbul on unrelated charges on 6 October. RSF will be there.
Turkey is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.