Turkish courts regularly violate journalists’ right to a fair trial, according to the preliminary results of a trial monitoring project being carried out by the Turkey-based Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) and the International Press Institute(IPI), a global network of editors, media executive and leading journalists for press freedom.

MLSA and IPI observed 90 court sessions of 71 separate trials in Turkey over a six-month period from July to December 2018 in 10 different provinces in Turkey. The vast majority of the defendants were journalists, but also included lawyers, academics and artists. Overall, 72 percent of the criminal charges were for alleged terrorism offences, while the rest mainly related to alleged acts of defamation.

The monitoring revealed that Turkish courts fail to respect a wide range of rights related to personal liberty and the rights of defendants guaranteed under Turkish constitutional law as well as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

Read the full report

Key findings include:

– In 34 percent of the trials observed, the defendant was denied the right to be physically present in the courtroom, instead forced to appear via a courtroom video link, which in some cases malfunctioned, preventing any hearing participation at all.
– At least one defendant was held in ongoing detention in 27 separate cases. Over half of these defendants had spent more than a year in pre-trial detention, even though such lengthy detention periods violate Turkish law and have been condemned by the ECtHR. Moreover, the trial observation showed that courts repeatedly failed to evaluate the requirements under Turkish law to keep defendants in detention during trial.
– In 41 percent of court sessions, changes were made to the panel of judges scheduled or assigned to the case, violating the principle of the lawful judge and casting doubt on courts’ independence and impartiality.
– In 45 percent of cases, judicial deliberations did not take place in private as required by law, meaning that prosecutors remained in the courtroom during deliberations.
– In 36 percent of court sessions, defendants were brought in by handcuffs, again in violation of Turkish law.
– The majority of hearings were delayed, in some cases by hours, and sessions were frequently adversely affected by various technical and communication flaws.

The findings also reinforce deep concerns over the quality of evidence used to prosecute journalists in Turkey. In 77 percent of trials, prosecutors cited as evidence news reports, interviews, columns and transcripts of conversations with sources and frequently used this evidence to justify ongoing detention. In the remaining cases, evidence mainly consisted of anonymous witness statements or footage showing the defendants attending press briefings or demonstrations.

Around 155 journalists are currently behind bars in Turkey, which escalated an already existing crackdown on media freedom following the July 2016 coup attempt. Despite the lifting of the country’s state of emergency in July 2018, Turkey has failed to restore journalists’ rights.

“Our trial monitoring shows that not only are Turkey’s journalists being prosecuted and jailed for their work on the basis of wholly unsubstantiated charges, but they are also being denied basic rights of defendants in criminal trials”, IPI Turkey Advocacy Coordinator Caroline Stockford said. “These findings make clear that Turkish courts do not offer an effective remedy for Turkey’s arbitrarily jailed journalists and underscore the urgency with which the European Court of Human Rights must accept and rule on Turkey-based cases.”

Although concerns are regularly raised about the effectiveness and independence of the Turkish justice system – concerns underscored last year when a lower criminal court flouted a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court ordering the release of two journalists – the monitoring by MLSA and IPI is the first effort to collect systematic data on this point. The trial observations were carried out by a team of around 30 monitors who underwent professional training and worked with a standardized form that was designed to reduce ambiguity and promote objectivity. Further details on the methodology can be found in the full report.

The trial monitoring project is supported by a grant from the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (FNST). IPI’s Free Turkey Journalists campaign is also supported by a grant from the European Commission via the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights.