The countless criminal complaints and lawsuits against Turkish journalists stand as a testament to the absurdity of the press freedom situation in the country. Since its establishment in July 2018, the Presidential Communications Directorate has stood out as one of the most determined pursuers of journalism in court, targeting reports critical of President Erdoğan and the directorate’s head, Fahrettin Altun.

Over the past few months, the Communications Directorate has filed numerous criminal complaints against journalists. The latest example of this came last month when Cumhuriyet journalists and editors Hazal Ocak, Vedat Arık, Olcay Büyüktaş and İpek Özbey were summoned to testify under an anti-terror investigation after the newspaper reported on a demolition carried out on a property rented by Altun. According to Cumhuriyet’s report, the land, situated on Istanbul’s Bosporus, is owned by the Directorate General of Foundations, which is responsible for managing and auditing thousands of foundations still in operation since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the possession of the lands belonging to these foundations. The newspaper said Altun rented this state land far below the market price, for about €37 per month, and had been constructing illegal elements on it, such as a wall, a pavilion and a fireplace.

IPI spoke to one of the targeted journalists, Hazal Ocak, about the case. “When I learned the land was rented by Altun, I reached out to research some documents and directed my questions to him but received no response”, Ocak explained.

The report was a fine example of the press engaging in its watchdog role, but things soon took an absurd turn. A public prosecutor, upon a complaint from Altun, requested an anti-terror investigation against the journalists, arguing that the report, by including the rental land’s address next to the director’s residence and photos of said building, made Altun a “target to terrorist organizations”.

“After the story was published in Cumhuriyet, a lynch campaign started against me. Pro-government media outlets began to report that I produced false news and that I made this on purpose with a motivation to target Altun and that this is a conspiracy against him” Ocak told IPI.

“However, it was only a report about an unauthorized construction on a piece of very valuable land”, she continued. “Although my news reports were factually correct, nobody talked about [that]. What I did was only journalism, and my only purpose was to provide public with true and correct news”.

Ban on news coverage of construction

Ceren Sözeri, an associate professor at the Galatasaray University on media policies and press ethics, told IPI that Altun’s role in this and other cases against journalists was a clear cause for concern.

“He shouldn’t be filing complaints against journalists, but he can and does”, she said. “He has identified himself with the president and he is not impartial. He is the Director of Communication of the Republic of Turkey, but he is acting like a propaganda officer of President Erdoğan. So, just as Erdoğan uses [the crime of] ‘insulting the president’ to silence almost every criticism against him, Altun also uses his power to silence journalism.”

Cumhuriyet’s report was given huge coverage in the media. To try to prevent the spread of the information, Altun applied and was granted a ban on news coverage related to his construction operations. In total, 273 news articles online were subject to the ban imposed by a court in Istanbul.

The stated reason behind the ban was that the news reports about the construction operations were published with an aim to shift the attention away from “success in the fight against coronavirus, despite many European countries failing”.

“Obviously, Altun sees himself as authoritative enough to decide what is newsworthy and what is not, and the judges confirm this”, Sözeri said.

The name of the complainant is enough

Why is Turkey’s judiciary so quick to take up cases against journalists and to impose bans? Ocak has some very pointed words on that.

“The Supreme Court of Cassation may sometimes overturn the convictions against journalists. Similarly, the Constitutional Court might rule on the violation of journalists’ rights in some cases”, she noted. “But the local courts of the first instance mostly do not pay attention to this. Unfortunately, the name of the complainant sometimes can be enough for an investigation to be opened immediately.”

According to Ocak, the situation surrounding the criminal complaint is perplexing.

“I still cannot understand how we come to the terror-related charges and investigation from a news story on an unauthorized construction of a pavilion. I assume that if the investigation initiated by Altun goes to a trial, there is a chance for a sentence up to five years in prison.”

Public advertising agency under Altun’s control

After the judicial harassment campaign against the newspapers reported on the Altun’s rental land came the next blow: Cumhuriyet received an advertisement ban of 35 days by Turkey’s Public Advertising Agency (BİK). BİK is controlled directly by the Communications Directorate thanks to a presidential decree issued in 2018.

Cumhuriyet reported that BİK’s decision claimed the news story “crossed the line of critical reporting and freedom of expression” and therefore violated press ethics. The decision also stated that the news report was manipulating the public and not factually correct, and also that the news did not serve the public interest. A 35-day-cut on public advertisement revenue would equal a 500,000 Turkish Liras (over € 67,000) revenue loss for Cumhuriyet.

Sözeri evaluated the relation between Altun and BİK: “He is doing that because he can. He relies on the president’s power and he knows that he will be protected. Every dissident can be accused of being a ‘terrorist’ in Turkey.”

Other criminal investigations on the way 

Altun has been keen to file complaints against journalists in other cases as well. Another recent case involves writer and columnist Ragıp Zarakolu, who is accused of advocating for a coup following a column published on the Artı Gerçek website and in the Evrensel newspaper. The accusations stem from the simple fact that the column was accompanied by a photograph of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan placed next to one of late Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, who was overthrown in Turkey’s 1960 coup d’etat and executed.

Zarakolu has vehemently dismissed the accusations, pointing out that he was persecuted many times for his critical reporting at the hands of the different military juntas and administrations in the 1970s and 1980s.

According to Sözeri, allegations aimed at Zarakolu are used by the administration to promote a sense of national unity through false accusations.

“Rumours of a coup are also a useful tool for this objective of manufacturing consent and of creating political polarization. In Zarakolu’s piece, there was no call for a coup but it does not matter. The headline and the photo that were chosen are enough to be cited as criminal evidence. Turkey’s judicial system is under high pressure and the courts are far from independent”, she concluded.