Since 2018, the International Press Institute (IPI) has been observing trials of journalists in Turkey to monitor violations of the rule of law and fair trial guarantees. Under Turkey’s ongoing crackdown on media freedom, which began following the July 2016 coup attempt, scores of journalists have been subjected to egregious rights violations. Many have been held for extended periods without charge; numerous others have been sentenced to prison terms without credible evidence.

In addition to trial observation by representatives of IPI’s secretariat, IPI launched a trial monitoring programme last year together with Turkey-based NGO Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), working together with a network of trained trial monitors. Between July and December 2018, the programme observed 90 court sessions of 71 separate trials in Turkey in 10 different provinces. Data from that exercise were published in a January 2019 report that exposes severe violations of journalists’ right to a fair trial, including:

– In some cases, particularly for Kurdish journalists, defendants were denied the right to appear physically in court, forced to appear instead via courtroom video link, which in some cases malfunctioned, preventing any participation in the hearing at all.
– Extended pre-trial detentions in violation of Turkish law and rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)
– Changes to the panel of judges scheduled or assigned to the case, violating the principle of the lawful judge
– The failure to hold judicial deliberations in private as required by law. In some cases, prosecutors remained in court while judges prepared their ruling.

In addition, the data confirmed that in the overwhelming majority of cases, “evidence” brought by prosecutors consists of journalists’ professional work or social media posts, underscoring that the wave of arrests is driven by a desire to shut down critical voices. Most journalists are charged with violations of Turkey’s anti-terror law and, to a lesser extent, of defamation law.

Trial Observation May 2019

Representatives of IPI’s secretariat observed four hearings in Istanbul in May 2019. The hearings were part of trials against journalists Hasan Cemal, Çağdaş Erdoğan and Cansu Pişkin, Kemal Karagöz and Kemal Demir. All four hearings were held on May 7 at the High Criminal Court of Istanbul.

Hasan Cemal hearing

A prominent journalist and founder of T24 news platform, Cemal is accused of “making terrorist propaganda”, “praising a crime and the criminal” and “defamation” over an article published in 2015 entitled “Silvan: They have made us so used to the suffering and the killing.”

Prosecutors brought the charges against Cemal in 2018. The first hearing took place on January 3, 2019, in Istanbul.

Observation notes:
Cemal was offered an opportunity to make a statement and he used it to refer to a recent decision of the High Electoral Council (YSK) to allow a re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election, won by the candidate of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Cemal said: “The YSK decision was the final straw that broke democracy in Turkey. I am one of thousands suffering this way in our country. I will not drop the flag of democracy the rule of law and freedom from my hand until I die. Despots will not escape from being judged in history.”

The judge asked Cemal’s defence lawyer, Fikret İlkiz, for his submission. İlkiz noted that, according to the Turkish Press Law, the limitations period for bringing a case in relation to a journalistic article had lapsed. İlkiz further observed that the persons Cemal had interviewed for the article were acquitted of criminal charges under Turkey’s anti-terror law, undermining the specific charges against Cemal.

İlkiz argued that the charges were in connection to Cemal’s work as a professional journalist and that the article was protected under Article 28 of the Turkish Constitution, Article 3 of the Turkish Press law, and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The judicial panel cleared the room for deliberations. The court then sentenced Cemal to three months and 20 days in prison, converted to a monetary fine of 3,360 Turkish lira (500 euros).

Rule of law violations:
• Court ignored expiration of limitations period under the Turkish Press Law
• Charges related exclusively to publication of journalistic content, protected by Art. 10 of the ECHR

Çağdaş Erdoğan hearing

Çağdaş Erdoğan, a photojournalist and video producer for several global news and photo agencies including AP, AFP and Getty Images, as well as the New York Times and the Guardian, was arrested on September 13, 2017 in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district and accused of photographing the National Intelligence Service (MİT) social facility earlier in the month.

A 37-page-long indictment published on November 25, 2017, charged Erdoğan with “membership of PKK/KCK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] terrorist organizations” and “making terrorist propaganda”. His website, photos, documentaries and social media posts were presented as evidence.

Erdoğan was released after a first hearing on February 13, 2018, after six months in pretrial detention. A travel ban was lifted on June 1, 2018. The case was then adjourned several times.

Observation notes:
During the hearing on May 7, the prosecutor recommended Erdoğan’s acquittal on the charge of “membership in a terrorist organisation” but requested that the case for “spreading terrorist propaganda” be continued.

At court, Erdoğan told IPI that the specialist reports obtained by his defence team undermined all the evidence against him.

“All of the evidence in this case is my journalistic work; my sources and my photographs”, he said. “They pasted a photograph of mine from a New York Times headline into the indictment and said: ‘this photograph was taken by a terrorist.’ On my 12th day in detention I learned that the allegation against me was that I had taken photographs of an intelligence building while in a park. I believe that they readied a false indictment and arrested me. The people named in the indictment were made up. There were no people like that in the park with me that day, but still I spent six months in prison. I do not think there is any independent journalism left in Turkey today. Of the very few independent outlets left, many of the journalists have had to leave their jobs or leave the country. I am not optimistic for press freedom in Turkey in the foreseeable future.”

The hearing, which began two hours late, was adjourned until July 13, 2019 at 15:00. The prosecutor presented his final opinion about the accusations. Erdoğan’s lawyer Figen Çalıkuşu demanded extra time to prepare her final defence statement. The court accepted this request and adjourned the trial until 13 June.

Rule of law violations:
• Charges related exclusively to publication of journalistic content, protected by Art. 10 of the ECHR
• Indictment does not meet standards of credibility
• Extended pre-trial detention
• Repeated adjournments amounting to judicial harassment

Cansu Pişkin hearing

A journalist for independent Evrensel newspaper, Cansu Pişkin charges of “indicating a state official as a target to terrorist organizations” over an article published in the daily that reported on the trial of a group of Boğaziçi University students detained for allegedly participating in a demonstration calling for peace in relation to Turkey’s military operations in Afrin, Syria. The article noted a change in the public prosecutor in the case, which prompted the charges against Pişkin. In her initial defence statements, Pişkin pointed out that pro-government media outlets such as Sabah, Akşam and Milliyet had also published the same news with the prosecutor’s name.

Observation notes:
The May 7th hearing was the third in this case. The prosecutor made no comments. The judge asked Pişkin if she had any statement to make. Pişkin said she did not write the article with any criminal intent. “I wrote that news item to inform the public. That is all. Journalism is not a crime and I demand my acquittal.”

The judge then asked the defence team to make its statements. Pişkin’s lawyers reminded the judges that there were no criminal elements in the case against their client. Pişkin was being prosecuted for revealing the name of a civil servant and thus allegedly making the person a potential target for terrorists. The defence pointed out that the “target” in question was not a civil servant but a member of the judiciary, regarded as independent of the state. Therefore, the charge had no legal grounds. The defence quoted the Turkish press law, Turkish constitution and European Convention on Human Rights with regard to Pişkin’s rights to freedom of expression as a journalist.

Another defence lawyer argued that “there are legal inconsistencies in the case. The simplest definition of the rule of law is that ‘the administration follows the laws that it has itself put in place’. We ask you to observe the rule of law and either acquit our client or drop the case.”

The judicial panel cleared the room while they deliberated and then reconvened to announce that Pişkin was sentenced to 10 months incarceration, suspended for five years.

Rule of law violations:
• Court ignored lack of criminal elements
• Charges arbitrarily brought against Pişkin, even as similar articles were published by other media outlets

Kemal Karagöz and Kemal Demir hearing

The two defendants, both cameramen of TV 10, a channel airing Alevi cultural and social programming that was shuttered by emergency decree during the state of emergency in Turkey in October 2016, are accused of having supplied filming equipment to a newly established TV channel in Rojava, northern Syria, and are alleged to have connections to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

During the hearing both defendants denied all charges. Lawyers for the defendants requested the lifting of police controls and the restoration of the passports of the defendants. Both requests were denied, and the case was adjourned until September 10, 2019.

Deniz Yücel: another significant trial

Deniz Yücel, Turkey correspondent for the German newspaper WELT, made a written submission to Istanbul’s 32nd High Criminal Court on May 10, listing the rights violations in his case. While IPI did not observe this hearing, it is worth recounting those violations, as raised by Yücel, here:

1. That he was imprisoned under inhumane conditions at Istanbul Police Headquarters in a 7m² cell with one or two other persons for 13 days as of February 14, 2017.
2. That despite not being the reason for his initial arrest, his journalistic work for Germany’s die WELT was used as “evidence” of a crime even though the articles in question fell outside the limitations period specified by the Turkish press law.
3. That the translations from German to Turkish of his journalistic articles presented to the court were full of errors some of which appeared to have been made deliberately to skew the meaning of the text. His journalistic articles on Turkey’s foreign policy and his interview with a lead member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (also interviewed by progovernment media) were used as “evidence” of “making terrorist propaganda”.
4. That in his first hearing he was constantly interrupted by the lead judge, who stated that he did not agree with Yücel’s comments in his defence.
5. That the charges against him of “making terrorist propaganda” and “inciting the people to enmity and hatred” were baseless and not a legal cause for ordering pre-trial detention.
6. That the appeal documents submitted by his legal counsel, Veysel Ok, for release from pretrial detention the appeal were not read by the judicial panel when they decided for his continuing detention. Yücel requested that pages from a website article on “issues with the infrastructure of Turkish football” be inserted into the appeal text and this was not highlighted by the judge, leading Yücel to believe that his appeal was not even read.
7. That he was detained in solitary confinement for nine months at Silivri High Security Facility’s Prison number 9. That under the conditions of the state of emergency he was denied access to any other prisoners and that access to the exercise yard was prohibited.
8. That he was allowed access to his lawyers for only one hour per week.
9. That letters he wrote and those written to him in prison were not delivered to him until he protested the fact at length.
10. That he was smeared in the pro-government Turkish press and that Star newspaper referred to him under the headline “Not journalist but PKK sniper” and was referred to in a public speech of President Erdoğan as a “PKK representative” and “German spy”. That he was addressed by the President seven times in total as a “terrorist”.
11. That he was verbally and physically abused by prison guards, especially during searches conducted in his cell. That he was hit in the face in the library room where there were no cameras. That he was repeatedly subjected to verbal abuse by the six prison guards that accompanied him everywhere.

Yücel had voluntarily reported to Istanbul Central Police station on February 14, 2017 upon learning that an investigation had been launched against him in relation to charges of breaching a computer system in relation to the Redhack group, which had intercepted emails of then-Energy Secretary Berat Albayrak. Yücel was then formally arrested and spent a total of 12 months in prison before his release in February 16, 2018.