Turkey: Court hears five cases against journalists during one morning in Istanbul

by Ana Ribeiro and Michelle Trimborn

The ECPMF condemns the re-arrest of journalist Ahmet Altan and stresses the importance of fair trials. Altan's case was one of several media-related ones heard in an Istanbul court on a recent morning.

Court_900X600 Other proceedings against journalists for their reporting. Photo: public domain

Turkish journalist and author Ahmet Altan had been released on 22 September after 12 days in detention. He was put back in jail the very next day. Like a mass of other journalists, Altan was arrested for alleged connections to the Fethulla Gülen movement and the coup attempt on 15 July 2016. His brother Mehmet Altan, along with more than 100 journalists and many others such as academics and civil servants, are also still in custody.

Media freedom organisations recently reported witnessing five hearings on cases against journalists at Istanbul’s Caglayan Court of Justice in one morning.

In its news report, The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) states that, along with its Turkish affiliates, it observed prosecution cases at the court ranging from high treason accusations to insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They all took place on 21 September.

One of them was the trial of OdaTV investigative journalists, which started six years ago: They have been “accused of being members of a secret illegal organisation called Ergenekon trying to topple the government.”

In 2013, the Turkish courts had found a cross-section of Turkish society including journalists, lawyers, academics and officers guilty of plotting to overthrow Erdoğan as part of the “clandestine network” Ergenekon. In April 2016, Turkey’s highest appeals court “overturned the convictions of 275 people, including senior military officers… [ruling] that the convictions were unsafe because the existence of… Ergenekon was unproven,” the BBC reported. However, according to the EFJ, the Caglayan Court judge on 21 September “refused to drop the charges [against the OdaTV journalists] in the absence of a [newly] appointed prosecutor and adjourned the case” to 24 October, 2016.

The EFJ on 21 September also witnessed a hearing on the appeal in the case of Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül. In another trial, the two reporters had been sentenced to five years in prison on accusations of revealing Turkish government secrets: In January 2014, the newspaper had linked to the Turkish Security Service (MIT) seized truckloads of weapons and ammunition destined for Syrian rebels.

On 22 September 2016, the Cumhuriyet newspaper was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, nicknamed the alternative Nobel Prize, “for their fearless investigative journalism and commitment to freedom of expression in the face of oppression, censorship, imprisonment and death threats”.

Three other cases were heard at Caglayan Court on the recent occasion. One was related to the newspaper Özgur Gündem, which has faced continued bans and political persecution since its inception in Istanbul in the 1990s, having had several incarnations over the years. The two other cases pertain, respectively, to T24 journalist Hasan Cemal, accused of insulting Erdoğan; and to brothers Mehmet and Ahmet Altan, accused of running “subliminal messages announcing a military coup” on a Can Erzincan TV programme. The TV channel has been shut down by Turkish authorities due to the case.

Turkey: Stop the purge, restore human rights! Turkey's President Erdogan. Photo: Andreas Lamm

Abuse of laws weakens democracy

The ECPMF strongly demands that all the present and future court cases be resolved in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and standards established by the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe. Furthermore, charges against media workers based on an abuse of the anti-terror legislation to silence critical voices must be dropped immediately.

The state of emergency has been going on for two months – and still the situation for media freedom is worsening. The ECPMF is afraid that the laws of the State of Emergency Act are exploited so that they do not ban wrongdoing, but lawful and democratic actions.

The process of media closures, arrests and legal prosecution which are now set in motion during the state of emergency are likely to continue after this phase is officially over. We urge the Turkish authorities to restore media freedom and other human rights immediately to end this crisis, which does not only affect media, but civil society and democracy as a whole.

An estimated 120 journalists are still detained in Turkey, in a regime broadly applying its anti-terrorism legislation. Reporters Without Borders presently ranks Turkey 151 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.