The Personal Data Protection Authority (abbrev. in Turkish: KVKK) published its reasoning on July 7 on a complaint brought by the Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun against independent newspaper Cumhuriyet following articles which reported on an illegal construction on a property he rented.
IPI welcomed the decision and said it represented a milestone for the protection of press freedom in the country, as the high numbers of institutional bans, sanctions and trials suffocate newspapers and demotivate reporters from continuing crucial work.
In 2020, Altun filed a complaint to the KVKK against Cumhuriyet journalists and editors Hazal Ocak, Vedat Arık, Olcay Büyüktaş and İpek Özbey over the “violation of the law on the protection of the personal data”, demanding a defence should be requested from the daily.
The KVKK’s decision, received by Cumhuriyet in late July 2021, referred to press freedom with strong remarks and rejected Altun’s request for an investigation into Cumhuriyet. The ruling stated that the news article does not contain any personal data or information that are not already open to public, and they were highly relevant and of public interest considering the nature of the content regarding a state land rented by a public official.
Therefore, KVKK ruled that “the news reports in question have been published under the freedom of the press, and they do not violate the law on the protection of the personal data, thus there is no further official action needed against the newspaper.”
In May 2020, Cumhuriyet journalists were summoned to testify under an anti-terror investigation after the newspaper reported on public land in Istanbul which was rented by Altun far below the market price and where several constructions were built illegally. A lawsuit was filed against reporters following Altun’s complaints for “targeting a person who participated in anti-terror operations”.
The journalists face sentences of up to 14 years in prison in the ongoing criminal case. The next hearing is scheduled for 1 December 2021. Cumhuriyet’s investigative journalist Hazal Ocak spoke to IPI, stressing that this decision reaffirmed that their work was legitimate journalism. “Because of these reports, our newspaper has been fined with thousands of Turkish liras, me and my colleagues were targeted with prosecution and Cumhuriyet was pushed to go financially bankrupt”, Ocak said. “I believe, all this have been to intimidate me and my colleagues. But truth cannot be disguised. We will continue to do journalism.”
“This is a welcome decision for investigative journalism in Turkey considering the hostile political attitude towards any critical report by the officials. KVKK decision on Cumhuriyet’s investigative reports is an important reminder for all that the press freedom must be protected for democratic values”, IPI Turkey Programme Coordinator Renan Akyavas said.
In the last few years, state officials in Turkey have been using criminal prosecution and complaints as a political tool to intimidate critical journalists. Communications Director Altun has been one of the most determined pursuers of journalism in court, IPI analysis reported in 2020.
Other state officials and governmental figures follow a similar strategy against critical reporting as the independence of the Turkish judiciary has been undermined in the last decade. Yet, there are also rare examples such as this where judicial and institutional harassment against dissident voices have been dismissed by the local authorities.
Another recent example was an Ankara court’s ruling on the complaint of Radio Television High Council (RTÜK) chair Ebubekir Şahin, a highly controversial figure for RTÜK’s politically motivated fines against critical tv channels, to file a lawsuit for insult on the opposition CHP MP Engin Altay. Altay criticized Şahin in his speech in May 2020 after RTÜK imposed several monetary sanctions on independent channels and called on Şahin that “he was not elected to satisfy President Erdoğan nor to do charlatanry.” On July 19, 2021, Ankara court rejected Şahin’s application to open a lawsuit against Altay on the ground that “those who are involved in politics shall accept even harsh criticism, comments.”