The International Press Institute (IPI) traveled to Diyarbakır, Turkey, in July 2023 to monitor the first hearing of a case in which 17 Kurdish journalists and 1 media worker – 15 of whom are currently in pre-trial detention are charged with “membership in a terrorist organization” and face a prison sentence up to 15 years. The hearing was held on July 11, 2023 at the Diyarbakır 4th High Criminal Court.

The journalists and media workers in the case were detained in Diyarbakır during simultaneous house and office raids on June 8, 2022. The 15 who remain in pre-trial detention are: Dicle Fırat Journalists Association (DGF) Co-Chair Serdar Altan; Mesopotamia News Agency (MA) Editors Aziz Oruç and Ömer Çelik; Xwebûn Magazine Managing Editor Mehmet Ali Ertaş; journalists Zeynel Abidin Bulut, Mazlum Doğan Güler, İbrahim Koyuncu, Neşe Toprak, Elif Üngür, Abdurrahman Öncü, Suat Doğuhan, Ramazan Geciken, Lezgin Akdeniz, Mehmet Şahin and media worker Remziye Temel. 

In addition, camera operators Kadir Bayram, Esmer Tunç and Mehmet Yalçın are also on trial but not currently in detention.

It was announced that each defendant could be represented by a maximum of three lawyers. A big delegation of lawyers including Resul Temur, Ülkü Şahin (Journalists’ Union of Turkey, TGS) and Veysel Ok (Media and Law Studies Association- MLSA) were in the court to defend the journalists.

Solidarity from press freedom groups and MPs

In addition to IPI, representatives from Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS), Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), Mesopotamia Women Journalists Platform (MKGP), Progressive Journalists Association (ÇGD), The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Association of Lawyers for Freedom (ÖHD) and Human Rights Association (İHD) also monitored the hearing. 

Republican People’s Party (CHP) MPs Sezgin Tanrıkulu and Utku Çakırözer and Green Left Party (YSP) MPs Cengiz Çandar and Adalet Kaya were present in the courthouse to show solidarity with the journalists. Many journalists from local and national news organizations were also in court to cover the hearing.

Day One

According to the information obtained by IPI, it was decided to hold the trial in one of the smallest courtrooms since the largest courtroom in the Diyarbakır courthouse was reserved for another hearing which was expected to take at least four days. The hearing, which was scheduled to start at 09:00, started about an hour late. It was observed that the police officers in the courtroom who initially announced that people would not be allowed to follow the trial eventually changed policy and left the courtroom door open after many people came to the court.

Before the trial started, the 15 journalists who were in pre-trial detention were brought to the courtroom in handcuffs, in violation of the legal regulations (Criminal Procedure Law, Article 191). As the journalists entered the courtroom, the audience in the courtroom expressed their solidarity with the journalists with a long applause. Then the presiding judge warned that the audience would be asked to leave the courtroom in case of disruptive behavior.

Prior to the hearing, the panel of judges also warned the audience not to use smartphones or laptops for recording. A journalist who was taking notes on his smartphone was warned by both the presiding judge and the police officers.

Two interpreters were also present in the courtroom to assist journalists who preferred to defend themselves in Kurdish.

At the beginning of the hearing, the presiding judge rejected a request from defense lawyer Resul Temur that the prosecutor who drafted the indictment recuse himself due to his being married to one of the court members. The judge said the request “aimed to prolong the case”.

The presiding judge then announced that the 728-page long case indictment or its summary would not be read in the courtroom. Then she briefly mentioned the accusations against the journalists and requested that the defendant journalists be identified first.

The first defendant, DFG Co-Chair Serdar Altan, defended himself in Kurdish and stated that the censorship and suppression of media has a long history in Turkey from the Ottoman Empire to date. Criticizing the accusations against him and the other journalists. ”We are not the defendants in this case. Instead, we are the plaintiffs. We are defending suppressed journalism” he said.

Following Altan’s statement, the hearing was adjourned for half an hour. In the meantime, press and freedom expression groups and opposition MPs made a public statement in which they highlighted the baseless accusations against the journalists and expressed their solidarity with them.

The trial resumed at 12:30 with statements in Kurdish from Ömer Çelik and Zeynel Abidin Bulut. Then, Mehmet Ali Ertaş stated that they have been a target of a systematic censorship during both the criminal investigation and trial processes and said that they were kept in pre-trial detention to obstruct the public’s right to access information.

After this statement, the hearing was adjourned one more time for 15 minutes. Then Mehmet Şahin made his defense statement in Kurdish. Şahin remarked that the government continues the systematic oppression of the Kurdish people and said, “The prosecution is undertaking the liquidation process of Kurdish journalism”. Şahin then started to respond to 16 different accusations against him in the indictment. While speaking about the 14th accusation, the presiding judge ended the session at 16:30 on the grounds that “working hours had expired” and announced that the hearing was adjourned to the next day, July 12, at 09:00.

Day Two

On Wednesday, the second session of the first hearing started on time. The court decided to listen to defense statements in Turkish first, on the grounds that the Kurdish translators were not yet in court. Then Aziz Oruç, Elif Üngür and Suat Doğuhan made their defense statements.

After interpreters arrived at the court, Mehmet Şahin continued his defense which could not be completed the day before. After Şahin, Mazlum Güler and Ramazan Geciken made their statements in Turkish. Following these, İbrahim Koyuncu, Abdurrahman Öncü, Remziye Temel and Neşe Toprak made their statements in Kurdish respectively. Pointing out that the pressure and threats against women journalists are increasing gradually, Toprak underlined that she was arrested because of the art/culture shows she made and that criminalizing artistic activities is extremely dangerous.

Then Lezgin Akdeniz criticized the indictment and accusations against them. “The indictment, which is almost 800 pages long, lists journalistic activities, but it does so without mentioning the words ‘journalism’ or ‘press’ throughout the document. If the term ‘journalism’ had been used even once, all the charges against us would have fallen like dominoes, one by one”, he said.

After the second 15-minute break, Kadir Bayram, Esmer Tunç and Mehmet Yalçın, who were pending trial, made their defense statements.

When the journalists completed their defenses, the panel of judges started to listen to Mehmet Çelik and Kezban Kuday, who joined the case as witnesses. Çelik and Kuday spoke out against the allegations made for journalists in the indictment. Lastly, a secret witness joined the hearing via sound and video information system (SEGBİS) and claimed that “the defendant journalists were constituting the media branch of the terrorist organization and that he saw them in various demonstrations.”

Lastly, defense lawyers Resul Temur, Veysel Ok, Abdullah Zeytun, Ülkü Şahin, Mehmet Emin Aktar and Ruşen Saydaoğlu spoke.

The panel of judges briefly adjourned the hearing to announce its interim decision. Then the court decided to release the journalists who were in pre-trial detention since June 2022 and to impose a travel ban as a judicial measure. After the prosecutor demanded the missing elements of the file be completed, the judge adjourned the case until November 9, 2023.

IPI will continue to monitor journalism in Turkey on trial. In addition to demonstrating solidarity with journalists facing repression, we seek to remind Turkish authorities of their obligations to respect and protect media freedom under international and domestic law.

For IPI’s previous trial observations, please click here.