Fifteen Kurdish journalists, held for over a year on charges related to their work, have been released after a two-day hearing that concluded on July 12, 2023. The court imposed a travel ban on them and rescheduled the trial to November 9, 2023. They potentially face 15-year sentences for ‘”membership of an unlawful organisation”. Our partner in Turkey, the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), reports on the case.
Fifteen Kurdish journalists, who had been under arrest for over a year following raids on their homes and offices in Diyarbakır related to their professional activities, were finally released after a two-day initial hearing on July 12, 2023. The court has placed a travel ban on the journalists and postponed the trial until November 9, 2023.
The trial involves eighteen journalists responsible for producing news, discussion, and cultural programmes for overseas TV networks. They face charges of “membership of an unlawful organisation”, which carries a potential sentence of up to 15 years.
In attendance at the Diyarbakır 4th High Criminal Court were the defendant journalists Serdar Altan, the co-chair of the Dicle Fırat Journalists Association (DGF); Aziz Oruç, editor of the Mezopotamya Agency (MA); Mehmet Ali Ertaş, managing editor of Xwebûn, journalists Zeynel Abidin Bulut, Ömer Çelik, Mazlum Doğan Güler, İbrahim Koyuncu, Neşe Toprak, Elif Üngür, Abdurrahman Öncü, Suat Doğuhan, Remziye Temel, Ramazan Geciken, Lezgin Akdeniz and Mehmet Şahin as well as the three other journalists who are not incarcerated: Mehmet Yalçın, Kadri Bayram, Esmer Tünç.
The attorneys of the journalists, Resul Temur, Veysel Ok, the Co-Director of the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), Ruşen Seydaoğlu, and TGS lawyer Ülkü Şahin, along with numerous other lawyers, were present in the courtroom.
Aziz Oruç, one of the arrested journalists, was first to defend himself. He underlined the importance of journalistic duty and the relentless pursuit of truth, despite having previously been tried, sentenced, and arrested twice due to his reporting in the same courthouse. He voiced his frustration over the journalists being branded as terrorists and reiterated their commitment to truthful reporting. Oruç also critiqued the indictment, saying it both accuses and absolves them, making it difficult to respond.
Elif Üngör, another arrested journalist, in her defence, contested the allegation that her TV show, Medya ve Ekoloji (Media and Ecology), was linked to terrorist organisation membership based on certain documents included in the investigation file. She criticised the cherry-picking of 22 out of dozens of her programs as criminal elements, insisting that they were all within journalistic principles. Üngör asserted that the freedom to investigate and uncover the truth is a fundamental aspect of journalism in a democratic society. She concluded her defence by stating, “As long as the Kurdish press continues to be persecuted, Turkey will remain low on the press freedom index.”
Suat Doğuhan, reflecting on their 13 months of imprisonment, addressed the court for the first time. He expressed concern about their journalistic activities being misconstrued as evidence of affiliation with an organisation. He took issue with the prosecutor’s assumption that the activities of all press institutions operating in the same building in Istanbul were organisational activities.
Journalist Mehmet Şahin defended himself in Kurdish through an interpreter. He criticized the indictment that used his membership in Eğitim-Sen and a speech he gave at a rally as evidence of a crime. Şahin expressed his conviction that their troubles stem from their opposition to injustice and their refusal to remain silent. He ended his statement with a defiant declaration, “Even if all hell breaks loose, our last word will be a free press.”
Incarcerated journalist Mazlum Güler pointed out that his 13-month detention is a result of nothing more than his work as a cameraman.
Ramazan Geciken, another journalist held in custody, mentioned that he was a cameraman, and recordings of his meetings with colleagues have been wrongly included in the indictment as evidence of criminal activity. He expressed his dismay about his conversation with a fellow journalist, who is presently reporting from the courtroom, being used as evidence against him. Geciken stated that this had led to a situation where arrest felt like punishment.
In his defence, incarcerated journalist İbrahim Koyuncu expressed his confusion, saying, “It took ten months for the indictment to be prepared, during which time I wracked my brain trying to understand the charges against me, but to no avail. When the indictment finally arrived, I still found no evidence of any crime. Our private conversations amongst journalists are being treated as a criminal act. Now, are we to believe that every journalist who calls another is guilty? The indictment is flimsy, and without any tangible evidence.”
Detained journalist Remziye Temel, during her testimony, expressed her distress at being accused as a member of an illegal organisation merely because she coordinated the filming of the company’s programmes. She questioned the indictment, which considered her work-related conversations about programme schedules as criminal evidence. Remziye, who has been detained unjustly and unlawfully for 13 months, asked if these activities constituted a criminal act.
In her defence, Neşe Toprak, another arrested journalist, thanked everyone present at the hearing for their solidarity and support. She proclaimed, “As an artist and journalist, my work is to mirror society, focusing particularly on the contributions of Kurdish women in the region. Yet, I’ve been under arrest for two years due to the content of the cultural and art programs I’ve produced. Why is presenting art and culture being criminalised? As a Kurdish journalist and woman, I aim to amplify women’s voices, and I intend to continue doing so. I deny the charges stated in the indictment.”
Lezgin Akdeniz, another journalist on trial, began his statement by saying they had been waiting for this day to appear in court for 13 months. He questioned why the indictment had taken so long to be prepared, and he observed that although the prosecutor’s 730-page indictment referenced their journalistic activities, it didn’t recognise them as journalists. Akdeniz noted, “This omission is conspicuous. If our profession had been acknowledged, the charges in this indictment would have crumbled one by one. We’re being told to adhere to government-defined standards in our work, but we refuse. As journalists, we can’t turn a blind eye to the truth.”
Akdeniz noted that out of the hundreds of news articles he had published, only five were cited as incriminating in the indictment. He also mentioned that he had no control over the reuse of his public articles by other websites. He expressed his frustration at being targeted for his reports about families who were victims of severe human rights abuses during the coup period in September 2012 and the 90s.
The court adjourned for a 15-minute break after the testimonies of the arrested journalists. They returned to the courtroom in handcuffs.
Journalist Kadir Bayram stated that he has worked as a cameraman for four years and rejected all charges against him.
Journalist Esmer Tünç, who communicated through a translator as she does not speak Turkish, testified that the accusations against her were based solely on conversations she had with colleagues about journalism. Tünç asked, “Is it a crime to discuss a programme or a shoot with my colleagues? Are we here to be held accountable, or to hold others accountable? At the end of the day, this court will decide whether justice exists in this country.”
Lastly, journalist Mehmet Yalçın stated that he had worked as a cameraman for a production company for a decade, finishing his defence by saying, “It’s completely normal for one cameraman to seek advice on sound and light settings from another.”
Following the Kurdish journalists’ defence, the court moved on to witness testimonies. The first witness, Mehmet Çelik, was a janitor in the building where the PEL company was located. When asked by the judge about the activities of the journalists there, Çelik confirmed they were filming documentaries and denied having witnessed them promoting the PKK or knowing where the footage was sent. Çelik denied having told the police that the journalists were creating programs for Sterk TV and Medya Haber TV. He rejected the testimony attributed to him by the police.
Witness Kezban Kuday, who started the hearing via video-link, said that she did not know the journalists, that she did not know exactly what Pel Yapım company did, and that she did not know whether the company had a relationship with the organisation.
The secret witness with the code-name CV23TV45UP78, whose face was pixelated on the SEGBİS screen and whose voice was changed, stated that he knew the journalists on trial in this case at the events organised in Diyarbakır and at the PEL production company. The secret witness argued that the Kurdish journalists were active in the press and broadcasting field of the organisation and that they held organisational meetings at the PEL production company. The secret witness claimed that the journalists made editing, montage and programs at the production company and sent them to Sterk TV and Medya Haber TV, and that he did not know if they had any other organisational relations. The secret witness’s claim that journalist Ömer Çelik participated in the events both as a cameraman and as an activist caused laughter in the hall.
Aziz Oruç reacted to the statements made by the secret witness , stating that going to the Pel company was not a crime but he had never been to this company. He reminded the court that he had been in prison on the date mentioned by the secret witness. The prosecutor then announced his final opinion and demanded the continuation of the detention of the arrested Kurdish journalists on the grounds of the current state of evidence in the file, the fact that some evidence has not been collected, and the suspicion of flight.
Attorney Temur: The secret witness’s testimony was premeditated
Resul Temur, the legal representative for all the detained journalists, voiced his disapproval of the prosecution’s closing argument. Temur emphasised that the secret witness’s testimony is unfounded and premeditated, as it mentioned Hayrettin Çelik, who has been residing in Europe since 2013. He added that this testimony seemed to be aimed at aiding the closure case of the HDP. Temur criticised the prosecution’s biased perspective on journalists, saying that the charges were founded on manipulated allegations. He underscored the unlawful seizure of the Kurdish journalists’ reporting materials in violation of constitutional rights and the lack of proper documentation of the search and seizure. He requested an inspection of the digital materials, alleging that they had been tampered with three days after the arrests. Highlighting that only a fraction of the 2,400 programmes were selected to build the case, he asserted that the journalists were only conducting their job and should be released considering the nature of the evidence.
Veysel Ok: ‘You should refer to the Constitutional Court’s decision on Cemil Uğur’
Veysel Ok, the Co-Director of MLSA, made a statement, claiming: “As an international observer and a defence attorney, I am here to say that this trial essentially ended yesterday. The journalists destroyed the prosecution’s case with their defence. This trial revolves around journalism.”
Ok underlined Turkey’s obligation to uphold freedom of speech and press, per international agreements, and reminded the court of national and international precedents protecting these rights. He criticised the Anti-Terror Law’s abstract and vague definition of terrorism, which could be used to label anyone as a terrorist. He stressed that holding a journalist accountable for a decade-old news piece is a sign of legal unpredictability. Ok asserted that a journalist’s reporting might irk prosecutors, but that that does not warrant an arrest. “If you are adjudicating journalism and the motives behind it, then you are adjudicating freedom of the press, a constitutional right.” Ok insisted that their clients are indeed journalists and requested removal of news pieces and images used as criminal evidence in the indictment. He defended Kurdish journalists who report on regional injustices and stated, “Journalists have a duty to defend peace and democracy, and they fulfil that duty.”
Referencing the Constitutional Court’s decision on Cemil Uğur, Ok said, “It doesn’t mean a journalist is part of an illegal organisation because of the news they report. This is not my view but the Constitutional Court’s.” He ended his statement by demanding the release of all journalists.
Abdullah Zeytun, Chair of the IHD Diyarbakır Branch, and TGS lawyer Ülkü Şahin asserted that this trial is not about the crimes, but about journalism itself. Despite being interrupted by the presiding judge, they stressed the significance of journalistic activity and its responsibilities.
Lawyer Ruşen Saydaoğlu claimed their right to defence was curtailed due to withheld documents related to the confidential investigation. She pointed out that the evidence suggesting her client’s flight risk was not concrete and that there was no consideration for the female Kurdish journalists in the investigation.
The hearing was postponed for the final verdict after the defence’s remarks. Following a brief recess, the court decided to release the detained Kurdish journalists, citing no risk of tampering with evidence or fleeing. The journalists were subjected to a judicial control order and an international travel ban. The court denied the request for re-examination of the digital materials and for summoning the signatories of the search and seizure reports as witnesses. The hearing was adjourned until November 9, 2023, to allow time for completion of the case file.
This article was written by Deniz Tekin, and was originally published on MLSA’s website. To read more about their work defending Kurdish journalists in Turkey, click here. Image courtesy of Emrah Gurel/AP.
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