16 journalists arrested in Diyarbakır: How and why?

16 journalists arrested in Diyarbakır: How and why?
On June 8th, one of the biggest operations against Kurdish journalists in recent years was conducted. As part of 2 separate criminal investigations carried out by the Diyarbakır Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, 22 people were taken into police custody. Those who were taken into police custody included 20 journalists working at the Mesopotamia News Agency, Jin News and Xwebûn daily, the Co-Chair of the Dicle Fırat Journalists’ Association, a media employee and a citizen who gave an interview to one of the journalists taken into custody. Some of the journalists were either the owners of production companies which have all been established and functioning legally or full time and part time employees of these companies. Though 22 people were taken into custody together and thus there is an impression in the media that there is one investigation, the number of the investigation file against the Jin News Director Safiye Alagaş had a different file number than that of 21 people. As part of the investigation, the houses of journalists and the offices of Pel Production, Piya Production and Ari Production were raided. After a 3-day search conducted at the offices of production companies, the police confiscated cameras, computers, news equipment, archives and many documents. The buildings where the production companies are located are still under police blockade despite the fact that the police concluded their search days ago.  The office of Jin News was also raided by the police. Neither the lawyers nor the employees were notified about the search conducted by the police even though it took hours. In addition to this, no record of the search nor the record of what has been confiscated was served to the lawyers of Jin News. It is also unknown if the police took the images of hard disks and flash disks confiscated as they are obligated to do so.

The right to a defense was restricted

As the journalists were taken into custody and the house raids went on, both the prosecutor who is leading the investigation and the Diyarbakır Security Directorate refused to share any information with the journalists’ lawyers citing the restriction order imposed on the investigation file. As per the Article 153rd of the Turkish Criminal Procedure Code, the defense lawyers have the right to access certain documents even if there is a restriction order. However, the lawyers were denied access even to these documents. Even though the prosecutor’s office and the security directorate refused to share any information with the journalists’ lawyers because of the restriction order, the details about the investigation were served to some media organizations.  The state owned Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) and the government-aligned media published the details about the operation with the headline “Terör örgütü lehine haber yapan ajanslara operasyon [Operation against the agencies which report in favor of the terrorist organization].” Thus, the journalists and their lawyers learned about the details of the investigation and the accusations, not from the authorities but from the government aligned media. In the news articles circulated in these media organizations, it was stated that the journalists were working for Pel Production, Piya Production and Ari Production -all of which were founded and operating legally- and that they produce news programs in these companies so that they can be broadcast on Sterk TV in Belgium and Medya Haber TV in the UK. The Turkish authorities see these channels as television channels close to the PKK.   In the informative note shared by the authorities with these channels, it was claimed that “After having reviewed 102 news stories under 9 headings and 82 hours of footage aired on Sterk TV and Medya Haber TV, the Diyarbakır police determined that the propaganda of the terrorist organization is disseminated [on these channels] and that an impression was being created to portray as if the military operations carried out by Turkey in Northern Iraq and Syria were against the Kurdish people.” The journalists were also accused of informing the PKK members about the movements of warplanes stationed at the Diyarbakır base. However, one of the central arguments in the news circulated in the mainstream media, namely that “the journalists were reporting the movements of warplanes to the members of the organization” neglected to mention the detail that all the content produced by these productions companies were not live content but tape recordings and therefore the journalists working for these companies cannot provide timely updates about the movements of the warplanes. Despite all these details served to some media organizations and no matter how much they tried, the journalists’ lawyers could not access the investigation file for 8 days during which their clients were held in police custody. The lawyers could not see the evidence against and in favor of their clients and thus the right to a defense of the journalists were restricted.

Custody extension petition like an indictment

On June 12th, the Criminal Judgeship of Peace accepted the prosecutor’s request and extended the custody period by 4 days on the grounds that the examination of the digital material confiscated by the police may take long. To some extent, the lawyers managed to get a glimpse of the accusations against journalists in the decision of the judgeship to extend the custody period. It was seen in the decision of the Diyarbakır 1st Criminal Judgeship of Peace to extend the custody period for Jin News Director Safiye Alagaş that the news reports published on Jin News and the discourse of the news articles were cited for the accusations. In its decision, the judgeship put forward that the language of the news reports published on Jin News are similar to those published on ANF and Nuçecivan,  both of which are based abroad. The judgeship further argued that; “It is evaluated that in the information process via media-press organs, the route is identical, the direction is the same and the source is one. These common narratives are distributed among the masses in a serial, uncontrolled and increasingly influential manner. It can be seen strikingly that when examined in general the Jinnews agency publishes in a biased way and on a specific axis. No doubt that objective editorial policy may not have been adopted as a principle, however, it is evaluated that an editorial policy concentrating on and parallel to the PKK terrorist organization’s ideological signs dominates. In this regard, the reporting in question is the chief separatist oriented and in favor of the terrorist organization and has the quality of supporting and encouraging [the terrorist organization]. It is crucially obvious that the publications support the PKK. By continuously and differently attending and organizing press statements, [terrorist] organization funerals, [terrorist] organization condolences, -so called- isolation protests, sitting protests and similar [terrorist] organization protests … The person and the newspaper which are determined to have an organic relationship with the PKK/KCK terrorist organization and who act on behalf of the organization have committed the offense of being a member of the armed terrorist organization …” The judgeship’s decision to extend the custody period with such an evaluation about a journalist caused a concern among the journalists and their lawyers that the custody period is extended only to manufacture new evidence in the investigation. Throughout 8 days in custody, journalists were kept in solitary cells at the Diyarbakır Security Directorate. Exercising their right to remain silent, the journalists refused to give their statements to the police on the grounds that both the investigation and custody were unlawful. During their time in custody, the journalists were also kept from satisfying their basic personal needs. The journalists were brought to the Diyarbakır Courthouse after being held in police custody for 8 days.

‘Criminal elements’: News articles, interviews, social media posts… 

The prosecutor questioned journalists about the news articles they published and the programs they produced. The prosecutor asked journalists why they produced these programs (and in one instance, the prosecutor asked why the journalist stopped producing that program), why they used such language in their news reports and if they published these news articles and produced these programs upon orders from the PKK and the KCK. The journalists were also asked if they know the other journalists in custody and why they work at these production companies. The prosecutor also asked journalists if they know about Piya Production, Ari Production, Pel Production, Jin News, Medya Haber TV and Sterk TV, if they know about any money transaction between these companies and channels and if they know about how news programs are sent to these channels. The journalists were also asked about the phone conversations they had between each other and their colleagues abroad about the news programs. The social media posts which were shared mostly on the personal accounts of the journalists were also presented as a criminal element. The journalists told the prosecutor that the news reports they published, the news programs they shot and the street interviews they conducted do not contain terror propaganda and that they all aimed to inform the public. The journalists also said that they do not produce programs or shows for Sterk TV and Medya Haber TV and that the programs produced by the production companies in question are broadcasted on the YouTube channels of the companies and not on the television channels in question.

Membership of İHD was posed as a criminal element, leading questions were posed

The prosecutor opened the questioning of journalist Aziz Oruç with an unlawful question. Despite the Article 25th of the Constitution, which states that “No one shall be compelled to reveal his/her thoughts and opinions for any reason or purpose; nor shall anyone be blamed or accused because of his/her thoughts and opinions”, the prosecutor asked journalist Oruç “Do you think if the PKK is a terrorist organization?” The opening of the questioning with such a question strengthened the lawyers’ concern that there is not enough evidence against the journalists in the case file and that there is an attempt to manufacture evidence for the accusations. Oruç and his lawyers objected to that question by reminding the prosecutor the relevant article in the Constitution and noted their dissent for such a question. The lawyers told the prosecutor that the questions must be based on concrete evidence included in the file. The prosecutor, however, did not include the lawyers’ dissenting opinion in the minutes of the questioning. The prosecutor did not ask the same question to other journalists after the lawyers’ reaction. All the questions the prosecutor posed to journalist Oruç were about his activities as a journalist, his social media posts, the phone conversations he had with his news sources and colleagues and the questions about the current events in the country which he asked people around Diyarbakır in street interviews he had conducted. The prosecutor even asked Oruç a statement in an interview in which he said “The budget allocated for war” and demanded Oruç to explain himself about what he meant with such an expression. During the questioning, the prosecutor showed Oruç a photo and asked him to explain it. After the lawyers requested to examine the photo, the prosecutor refused to let the lawyers examine it on the grounds that there is a restriction order. A social media user, however, shared the same photo a day after journalists were arrested. The photo in question was taken from a case file of trial in which Oruç was acquitted. After presenting his membership of the Human Rights Association (İHD) as a criminal element, the prosecutor asked journalist Serdar Altan what he meant by expressions like “isolation” and “conspiracy” and why he used such expressions in his news articles. The prosecutor also asked Altan why he used the word “zindan [dungeon]” in his articles instead of prison [hapishane]. The lawyers stated that they have no knowledge of the content of the investigation file because of the restriction order imposed and that this constitutes a violation of the right to a defense. The lawyers argued that their clients are journalists and all they are accused of are their activities as journalists and requested that their clients be released. On June 16th, after the questioning which lasted until 04:00 am, the prosecutor referred 21 people (excluding Jin News editor Gülşen Koçuk who was released with judicial control measures imposed upon her early in the day), to the criminal judgeship of peace and requested them to be arrested over the suspicion of “membership of a terrorist organization.” The prosecutor’s accusation of the journalists contained familiar statements which can be seen in the accusations directed against many Kurdish journalists. Most recently five journalists who reported the villagers being tortured and thrown out of a helicopter by security forces faced the same accusations: “Being a member of the [terrorist] organization’s ‘Press Unit’ as specified by the Article 14/c of the KCK Constitution…” 5 journalist in Van who stood trial on “membership of a terrorist organization” charge were all acquitted. Furthermore, the Constitutional Court found that their detention constituted a violation of their rights and ruled that the detention was unlawful.

The old testimonies of confessors and ‘known’ anonymous witnesses are in the investigation file

In her referral of the journalists to the judgeship, the prosecutor stated that as part of a criminal investigation against “individuals who operate as the PKK and KCK Press Structure”,  the Diyarbakır Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office monitored the news programs broadcasted on “Sterk Tv and Medya Haber Tv which are guided by the PKK.” The prosecutor claimed that it was determined that the daily and weekly news programs produced by the journalists in custody are broadcasted on these channels and these broadcasts contain criminal contents as through these programs the propaganda of the PKK and the KCK are disseminated. In her referral, the prosecutor included the testimonies given by those who surrendered and turned “PKK confessors” between 2015 and 2018. In their testimonies, the confessors had claimed that they learned about military operations and airstrikes from Medya Haber TV and a radio station called Denge Kürdistan. The testimonies of anonymous witnesses called “Ezel” and “Firar” which contained general statements were also included. “Ezel” and “Firar” served as witnesses in trials against thousands of individuals who were part of the Kurdish press, politics, culture and women’s studies. The testimonies of these anonymous witnesses were also included in the case files of trials against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) representatives. In their statements, the confessors did not specifically identify journalists in custody nor accused them directly. The majority of the journalists who were taken into custody did not work at the production companies in question between 2015 and 2018. In fact, journalists Aziz Oruç and Ömer Çelik were in prison during that time. Journalist Lezgin Akdeniz was working at a different news agency at the time. Despite all these facts and the fact that all the news articles which the confessors referred to are prior to 2018, the confessors’ testimonies were included in the file to legitimize accusations against journalists for news programs produced in 2021 and 2022. Even though the informative note served to some media organizations mentioned that journalists notified the PKK members about the movements of warplanes taking off from the Diyarbakır Base, no concrete statement nor evidence were included in the investigation file. Nonetheless, the prosecutor concluded that the PKK members were notified about airstrikes by journalists through news programs aired on Medya Haber TV simply because some of the programs produced by journalists were shown on Medya Haber and Sterk TV.  Similar to the news reports circulated in the mainstream media, the prosecutor also ignored the fact that it is not possible for journalists to relay information about the movements of the warplane since the content broadcasted on these channels is not live content but recordings. The prosecutor also did not include in the file any evidence in favor of the journalists.

3 page arrest decisions for 16 journalists in 15 minutes

The Diyarbakır 1st Criminal Judgeship of Peace waited for all 21 people to be referred by the prosecutor’s office before starting their interrogation. Thus, many of those 21 people in custody had to wait for hours after they were referred by the prosecutor’s office. The Diyarbakır 1st Criminal Judgeship of Peace announced its decision only 15 minutes after everyone was referred by the prosecutor’s office. The judge decided that 16 journalists be arrested. The journalists’ lawyers stated that the judge’s decision was prepared earlier as the judge individually issued a 3-page reasoned decision for 16 people in 15 minutes.   In its reasons for the decision to arrest journalists, the judge referred to the testimonies of confessors about Sterk TV, Medya Haber TV, Jin TV and Rohani TV. The witness K. K. claimed that Pel Production produced news programs and conducted interviews for Sterk TV, Jin TV and Medya Haber TV. However, the judge did not offer any explanation about the link between these testimonies and the journalists nor any concrete evidence showing that the journalists actually did what they are accused of. In this decision to arrest 16 journalists, the judgeship further stated: “Taking into account the findings that the person is continuously and regularly operating as part of structures which appear to be press and media organizations, but which in fact operate to inform the members of the aforementioned terrorist organizations and to encourage the violent acts of the terrorist organization, and also taking into account that the members of the terrorist organizations are instructed by the leaders of the terrorist organizations under the guise of interviews, the record of residence searches, the digital material examination reports and the whole investigation file, the person who was referred to our judgeship with a request to be arrested and who is strongly suspected of having committed the crime is to be arrested as per the Article 100th of the Turkish Criminal Procedure Code because there is a reasonable suspicion as specified in the Article 5th of European Convention of Human Rights and in the Article 19th of the 1982 Constitution and because there is concrete evidence which shows a strong criminal suspicion as stipulated by the Article 100/1 of the Turkish Criminal Procedure Code and because judicial control measures will not be sufficient considering the sentence stipulated in the law for the crime of which the person is suspected to have committed…” Yeni Şafak daily which is close to the government announced the arrests with the headline: “Haber kılıflı muhbirlik: Operasyon için havalanan F-16'ları örgüte bildirmişler [Snitching under the guise of reporting: They informed the organization about F-16s taking off for operations].” In the news article, it was stated that “suspects were determined to be warning the organization about the F-16s taking off for the operations through news articles.” The news article published in Yeni Şafak also shared details about the investigation which were not shared with the lawyers. Yeni Şafak and AHaber also included the photographs in which the cameras and newspaper archives confiscated by the police during house and office raids are displayed as “crime equipments.” There are ongoing campaigns in mainstream media as well as social media through which journalists are targeted. 

The prosecutor and the judge have been sent to different cities

The prosecutor who led the investigation, which resulted in 16 journalists being arrested was assigned to the Diyarbakır center from Diyarbakır's Bismil district. However, the prosecutor who was recently assigned to Diyarbakır has been assigned via the June 19th decree of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors to İzmir only 3 days after leading the investigation, questioning journalists and referring them to be arrested. The judge who had accepted the prosecutor’s request and arrested the journalists was also sent to a different city and assigned to Sakarya.

Attorney Temur: The arrests were made with forced interpretations 

Speaking to the Mesopotamia News Agency, attorney Resul Temur shared that journalists were questioned about their occupational activities and were eventually arrested with “forced interpretations.” Saying that journalists were not told what they were accused of for 8 days and the objections and appeals of the lawyers left unanswered, Temur stated that their right to an effective remedy was also violated. Sharing that the key sentence in the arrest decision was “Those operating under the guise of TV and radio channel, press and media organization…”, Temur said: “As always, the judiciary resorted to cheating and lying. They are creating the image of ‘We are not trying them for journalism, they are tried for membership of a terrorist organization’ by distorting the journalistic activities with irrelevant witness testimonies. They are trying to connect some testimonies from the past with this file just to ground that image.” Pointing out that there is no causal connection between the witness testimonies and the arrested Kurdish journalists, Temur stated “None of the channels in the testimonies operate in Turkey. Therefore, they arrested Kurdish journalists with forced interpretations for this reason.” Temur further argued that by arresting the journalists, there is an attempt to hinder Kurds setting their own agendas, discussing their agendas as well as to prevent the Kurdish issue being discussed.  *This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. The work may be used and redistributed for non-commercial purposes with proper attribution to the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA).

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