On October 12, 2021, International Press Institute (IPI) representative attended and monitored the trial of Kurdish journalist Ruşen Takva at the Van 5thHigh Criminal Court as part of IPI’s Turkey trial monitoring programme. Joined by a representative of the British Embassy in Ankara, the IPI delegation travelled to the eastern border city of Van to monitor the trials and to meet with local journalists to learn more about the challenges Kurdish journalists face while reporting from the region.

Facing up to 18 years for “leading an illegal march”

IPI Turkey Programme Coordinator Renan Akyavaş, who monitored the hearing together with the British Embassy representative, interviewed Takva prior to the hearing to ask about irregularities during the investigation and prosecution.

An investigation was opened against Takva, a former reporter for now-shuttered IMC TV who is currently working as a freelancer for several media outlets, in January 2021 following a demonstration held on January 8in Van organized by the pro-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (DBP) and MPs of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as well as local CSOs.Due to the ban on demonstrations and protests which was  introduced in Van following the coup attempt in 2016, the permission request by the group was declined by the governor’s office. The ban on demonstrations has been extended for over 100 timessince 2016 by the governor’s office, totaling to over 1,700 days.

The political parties and civil society groups decided to hold the demonstration despite the ban. As Takva reported, there were several journalists that day covering the demonstration including reporters from İhlas News Agency, Mezopotamya News Agency and the pro-government Demirören News Agency. However, Takva emphasized that he was under particular police scrutiny, which he said was due to his regular reporting on the border crossing of Afghan refugees near Van. Takva said that he was the first to report on the border crossings with video and images.

Following the demonstrations, Takva was charged with “leading and managing an illegal march on behalf of a terrorist organization” despite the photos and video images presented to the court as evidence clearly showed he was holding a camera reporting from the demonsration. The first hearing was held on June 10, prior to which Takva and his lawyers said that they expected an acquittal as the case has no legal grounds or evidence for the alleged crime.

The October 12 hearing was scheduled for 9:05 ambut started with a delay of over an hour. The prosecutor read his final opinion requesting acquittal for Takva on the ground that not enough evidence was found for the alleged crime. Takva’s lawyers also requested his acquittal, but on the grounds that the elements of the crime had not been formed. The court ruled for Takva’s acquittal after a short break.

Local journalists lack international support, resources and materials

After the trial monitoring in the morning, the IPI delegation met a number of local journalists in Van, including Adnan Bilen, Dindar Karataş and Sıddık Güler. Bilen, a reporter for Mezopotamya News Agency (MA), has been on trial with four other reporters from MA and Jinnews for reporting on the story of two Kurdish men who were allegedly dropped from a Turkish military helicopter. Bilen and three other co-defendants were detained on October 5, 2020 after their homes were raided by the police, until they were released on April 2, 2021 during the first hearing of the trial. The latest and fourth hearing in the case,which was held on October 21, was adjourned to January 6, 2022, where the verdict is expected on the charges of “membership of a terrorist organization”.

Bilen explained in the meeting that he had been traveling to eastern cities to conduct interviews and report since 2019 following a number of allegations on mistreatment and torture of citizens by Turkish armed forces. He said he had been targeted by local police for having reported on “torture from the region”. He also stressed that Van is the city in Turkey with the highest proportion of prosecuted journalists to population. Bilen also emphasized that he and his colleagues had not gotten back their cameras, computers and other materials confiscated during the raid, which has made it difficult for them to do their work and left them in an economically dire situation.

Freelance journalists Güler and Karataş also said that they had been targeted occasionally by police physical surveillanceas well as judicial harassment. Karataş was imprisoned between November 26, 2020 and February 9, 2021, and is being prosecuted for interviews he conducted with politicians and phone calls he made with sources for news articles about armed conflicts in the cities of Erzurum and Ağrı. Güler said that three lawsuits had been opened against him in one week for reporting on an allegation of sexual harassment by one of the advisors of President Erdoğan in 2019. The journalists said that the physical surveillance and continuous trials have worn them down both psychologically and economically, and noted that many colleagues have quit journalism under pressure.

All of the journalists emphasized the importance of international and domestic support and solidarity especially the Kurdish journalists and reporters from eastern Turkey. They said what they lack the most is financial support via journalistic projects. They also noted that no international organization or representation of an international group is present in Van. Having such representation, they said, would increase the impact and credibility of reporting on violations in the region.