Turkish Journalists Are On Trial Over Tweets, News Reports

“I wanted to die with a sense of departure from life when I was put into custody, to a three-men capacity cell along with 13 other inmates. I started to think that this world would be a hell of another world.”

These words belong to a man who is accused of being a member of an armed terrorist organization. But his legal record contains no wrongdoing or a criminal activity.

Prosecutors cited to his tweets or reports as evidence in the indictment at a trial on Tuesday. Given the severity of charges leveled against him who would be sentenced to 15 years in prison if convicted, the very light nature of the evidence presented to the court seems to be odd.

That man, Emre Soncan, was nothing but a journalist who had press credentials with prime ministry and the presidency, flew with former President Abdullah Gul along with other press members to several countries in official foreign trips in the past.

Today he faces charges of terrorism and has been in jail for more than 8 months.

Along with 27 other colleagues — two of them in absentia — were put on a trial over their journalistic work, news reports, tweets, retweets and comments on social media. Their trial indeed is the trial of journalism as an institution and a profession in Turkey where media remains a regular target for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and is regarded as number one public enemy.

After opening session of the trial on Monday with a hearing, journalists went on to defend themselves on Tuesday for the second day. The majority of them belong to newspapers shut down in the aftermath of a putsch last summer. Prosecutors seek up to 15 years jail terms for the journalists.

Despite for all the ordeal he went through over the past 8 months in prison, Mr. Soncan bravely stood at the court, presented a memorable defense for journalism during the hearing, laying bare to vivid contradictions inherent in charges against journalists.

Citing the highly political nature of trials, he expressed his desire to be acquitted by judges who did not bow to political authorities.

“This indictment is well lagging behind [level of] the 19th-century judicial system,” he said in a sharp rebuke of the legal proceedings.

“According to European Court of Human Rights, freedom of expression and press is broadly defined, and could only be curtailed in the case of violence or hate speech. In none of my speeches, my writings or interviews, there is no even a small hint of hate speech, insult or violence.”

After working as a presidential reporter, Mr. Soncan then moved to another department to cover stories regarding defense and military affairs for the Zaman daily, the largest circulation in Turkey before the takeover by the government last year.

The trial brought into focus the dismal and poor state of media in Turkey. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmakers Sezgin Tanrikulu, Mahmut Tanal, Safak Pavey, Selina Dogan and Reporters Without Borders’ Turkey Representative Erol Onderoglu followed the hearing.

The scope of the crackdown on media appears startling as Amnesty International says one-third of all imprisoned journalists in the world are in Turkey. More than 150 journalists are put behind bars.

Detailing his days in prison, Mr. Soncan said rights of open or private meeting with families, receiving or sending letters, and conversation with other inmates were prohibited.

In a criticism of the prosecutor’s persistent demand to keep him in jail over the possibility of going abroad, he said he had visas to a lot of countries. But he did not choose to flee the country, turned himself into police after obtaining information about detention warrant against him.

‘Tweets As Evidence’

Indictments against journalists contain palpable contradictions and sometimes border on absurdity as an editor is accused of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for tweeting a statement from famous American dissident and leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky about the state of media in Turkey.

“Famous International Intellectual Chomsky: Crackdown on Media points to Setbacks for Turkey,” the indictment cited tweet of Ali Akkus, former News Editor of now-defunct Zaman daily, as criminal conduct. “No dictator can silence the press,” his another tweet also found a place in the indictment. In a note under the tweet, the prosecutor said the journalist used the word of ‘dictator.’ Where otherwise could be regarded as a joke is a reality in Turkey given that thousands of people face a criminal investigation over charges of insults against President Erdogan.

In another defense, journalist Cuma Ulus said he has been kept in prison for 8 months for posting critical tweets that highlight a cardinal element of faith among journalists: Journalism is not a crime.

“I have been a journalist for 21 years. I stood against terrorism and violence, defended expression of freedom during all my life,” said Mr. Ulus, lamenting the fact that his tweets were presented as evidence of wrongdoing against him.

He said the plan for mass arrests of journalists were already made public well before actual police arrests after a whistleblower released on Twitter the lists of journalists to be targeted. He was on the list, his press card was revoked, and days later he was arrested last July, a week after the coup.

In the indictment, prosecutors cite 3 tweets and 22 retweets critical of the government for his imprisonment, accusing him of manufacturing anti-government frenzy and igniting hatred in social media.

Mr. Ulus rejected charges of anti-government propaganda on Twitter, saying that he has only 300 followers, not 300,000. He questioned the argument against him, saying that how could he launch a campaign on Twitter with only 300 followers to demonize the government.

“I never been accused of anything during my life, none of my reports were dismissed. There is no evidence [showing a criminal conduct] against me,” former Zaman political reporter Habib Guler told judges. 

“I did nothing except journalism at the newspaper. It is clearly evident that my profile does not match with a member of a [terrorist] organization,” he said, sharply denouncing charges against him.

“I have a press card for 24 years. I never did anything except practicing journalism,” said another journalist, Halil Ibrahim Balta of Zaman newspaper. 

Experienced business reporter Balta fumed over pervasive mistreatment of inmates. He said he received medical treatment at the hospital while still having handcuffs, despite the fact that guards and gendarmerie were present at the room.

He rejected charges against him over sharing 4 tweets about National Intelligence Organization’s (MIT) arms shipment to Syria with MIT-owned trucks several years ago. What jarred him most was the fact that the court did not reveal the 4 tweets which were the basis of accusations against him. He said there was a government block on his Twitter account and he was not provided the content of 4 tweets.

He insisted that there was no criminal content on his tweets, no insult or threat. He posted tweets within the scope of freedom of expression, he elaborated.

“I’m a court reporter, today there was not a single friend here [to cover hearing],” said former Zaman reporter Hanim Busra Erdal who expressed her disappointment over the lack of support from other colleagues whom she shared long times during her job.

“I feel sorry mostly for my family. They experience difficult times that they do not deserve.”

“I was a normal [ordinary] citizen until July 15. I woke up as a “terrorist” on July 16 morning,” she told the court, expressing her difficult to understand the absurdity that landed her on the list of wanted terrorists after the putsch. 

Former military judge Umit Kardas who represented Ms. Erdal as her lawyer said he found charges are devoid of any legal base, saying that the Gulen movement was widely referred as a terrorist organization by authorities only after the July coup. Given that the date of what charges Ms. Erdal face go back before the designation of movement as a terror group, Mr. Kardas asked judges how could they determine the date of criminal conduct.

The trial and journalists’ defenses offered a vivid, startling picture of judicial affairs, legal proceedings in Turkey. Most defendants are simply tried over their tweets critical of the government. They have been in jail for 8 months without no indictment until very recently.

In a break with the tradition and legal procedure, the indictment was not read during the hearing in the presence of defendants. During the first day of the trial, Ali Deniz Ceylan, the lawyer representing Journalist Murat Aksoy and Singer-turned-journalist Atilla Tas, called for recusation of Judge Ibrahim Lorasdagi from the prosecution phase, citing the Turkish Code of Criminal Procedure (CMK).

According to 2nd Part of CMK Article 23, a judge who served during the investigation phase of a trial that led to arrest of someone, cannot take part in the prosecution phase of the same trial against the same defendant. Another judge must oversee the rest of the trial to preserve impartiality and objectivity of the legal proceeding. But that key tenet of criminal law was ignored in the cases against journalists.

The trial is set to proceed with defenses of other defendants.

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