Turkey marks today, January 10, as Working Journalists Day – an occasion that has become even more symbolic and important given that many journalists have lost their jobs due to the pandemic in the last two years. Moreover, those who continue to carry out their profession, whether as a staff journalist or as a freelancer, face various challenges in providing news to public.
The International Press Institute (IPI) marks Working Journalists Day in Turkey by highlighting ongoing challenges for the country’s independent journalists, shown through recent examples in the new year.
In the first week of 2022, Turkey has already seen a number of journalists face trial or detention. At the same time, Turkish courts have issued several significant rulings in defence of journalistic rights, offering at least a glimmer of hope amid the country’s seemingly interminable crackdown on the independent press.
More trials and convictions
On January 4, Ferhat Çelik, managing editor of the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya News Agency (MA), was briefly detained as part of an anti-terror police operation. Çelik reported that he was questioned in relation to a number of news articles published on MA, including news reports on an incident in which two Kurdish men were allegedly dropped from a Turkish military helicopter, one of whom later died in the hospital. Çelik was released after an initial interrogation at the courthouse.
On January 6, three separate trials against journalists on various charges took place in Istanbul, Van, and Diyarbakır. They included a hearing in the case of journalist Caner Taşpınar, who is on trial for “insult” following complaints by two founding members of the AKP and a former president of the parliament in response to a book Taşpınar published in 2020. The book analyzed the family relations and connections between AKP officials and members of the movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen. During the hearing, the prosecutor requested Taşpınar’s acquittal, stating that the elements of the crime had not been constituted. The court adjourned the case until January 25.
In Van, journalists Adnan Bilen, Cemil Uğur, Zeynep Durgut, Şehriban Abi, and Naza Sala faced a final hearing in the case against them for reporting on allegations that two Kurdish villagers had been dropped from a Turkish military helicopter. All five journalists were acquitted of the charge of “membership of a terrorist organization”. However, Sala was sentenced to one year and three months on a charge of “spreading terrorist propaganda”.
On the same day, Rojhat Doğru, a former correspondent of Iraq-based Galî Kurdistan TV, was sentenced to life for “disrupting the integrity and unity of the state” and an additional 12 years on charges of attempted murder and “spreading terrorist propaganda”. Doğru was accused of attending demonstrations in Diyarbakır between October 6 and 8, 2014, against the violence in Kobane, Syria. The demonstrations turned into violent clashes between the protestors and the Turkish armed forces. Doğru said that he was following the events as Galî Kurdistan TV’s correspondent but prosecutors accused him of participating in the protests and injuring a person with a weapon. IPI has not reviewed the evidence against Doğru.
One member of the judicial panel objected to the verdict, stating that Doğru’s file should have been evaluated under the charge of membership of a terrorist organization, as, according to the judge’s view, the contents of the case file did not constitute concrete evidence for the accused charges.
Key court rulings
Even as journalists continued to face prosecution in the new year, new court rulings offered hope on two key fronts: the discriminatory allocation of press cards and the arbitrary blocking of news reports online.
On January 5, Evrensel newspaper reported that an administrative court found that the rights of its Ankara correspondent, Birkan Bulut, were violated due to the lengthy evaluation process in response to his application for a press card. In Turkey, press cards are issued by the Communications Directorate of the Presidential Office. Bulut submitted his press card application in 2017 but has not received a decision. According to the newspaper’s report, the Ankara court found that as the evaluation process has taken longer than a reasonable time period, any further delay in the process could further damage the journalist’s fundamental rights and ability to practice his profession. It ordered the Communications Directorate to suspend the lengthy waiting period immediately and take Bulut’s application into consideration. The court ruling sets a precedent for many other journalists who have been waiting for an evaluation of their press cards applications or whose press cards have been cancelled in recent years. However, the Communications Directorate has yet to implement the ruling.
On January 7, the Turkish Constitutional Court announced a significant pilot judgment against the blocking of online news articles. In response to cases brought by several independent news outlets, including Diken, Artı Gerçek, and BirGün as well as journalist Çiğdem Toker, the Constitutional Court ruled that local courts’ blocking of access to the 129 articles highlighted in the complaint violated the applicants’ right to press freedom. It also ruled that the rights violations stemmed from a systematic problem based on the current legal framework regulating authorities’ interventions in the online sphere. The Constitutional Court advised the Turkish parliament to revise the current regulation to provide the minimum standards needed in a democratic society.
The Constitutional Court also found that the media outlets who brought the cases lacked an effective remedy to object to the access blocks. It said that local courts must implement a mechanism to ensure that citizens can respond effectively to such blocks.