The International Press Institute (IPI) condemns the conviction of Turkish journalist Sinan Aygül in connection with his reporting on sexual abuse allegations involving police officers. Aygül was the first journalist charged under Turkey’s new “disinformation law” passed by the Turkish parliament last October.

On December 13, 2022, Aygül, who is the president of the Bitlis Journalists Association, published a report on his own YouTube news channel on an alleged sexual abuse case involving a 14-year-old girl in Tatvan district of Bitlis, southeastern Turkey. The report contained allegations that three police officers and a sergeant were among the suspects in the case. However, after the governor of Bitlis, Oktay Çağatay, called him to correct information about the suspects, Aygül published a follow-up statement on his Twitter account saying that despite his best efforts to double-check the facts before publishing, he withdrew the allegations about the officers and apologized for any misunderstanding.

Aygül was arrested the following day on charges of “openly disseminating information misleading the public” underArticle 217/A of the Turkish Penal Code, part of the new “disinformation” law, and released on December 22 after spending eight days in prison.

The Tatvan Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office submitted an indictment against Aygül claiming that no such sexual assault had been reported to the prosecutor’s office and that Aygül therefore published “unconfirmed” news. Prosecutors announced they would seek a three-year prison sentence.

On February 28, the Tatvan 1st Criminal Court sentenced Aygül to 10 months in prison. Aygül told IPI that he is appealing against the ruling and believes that the charges against him will be dropped by the higher courts. “I am one of the journalists that criticized [the disinformation law] even before it passed in the parliament. We were expecting that it would cause many problems for journalists and here it started”, Aygül said.

He added: “There is not sufficient evidence to convict me. It is an unfair decision in terms of both the problems regarding the legal framework and the lack of concrete evidence. I exercised my right to remain silent during the hearing because I do not see this law as legitimate. They ruled on a case without taking my statement.”

Aygül was targeted in the past by local authorities for his critical reporting. On January 19, 2023, Aygül was detainedon accusations of insult against AKP MP Vahit Kiler in Bitlis for reporting on corruption allegations regarding Kiler. Aygül was released the next day after an initial interrogation.

“The prosecution and conviction of Sinan Aygül sets a troubling precedent in Turkey and demonstrates one way in which Turkey’s so-called ‘disinformation’ law can be used against journalists”, IPI Turkey Programme Coordinator Renan Akyavaş said. “Sentencing Aygül to prison, despite the fact that he publicly apologized and corrected his reporting, is an act of intimidation, especially for local journalists whose cases are not as publicly well known. His sentence should be overturned on appeal.”