Van – The trial where five journalists, four of whom were in pre-trial detention, are charged with “membership in a terrorist organization” due to the reporting on two citizens being tortured by security officials began today at Van 5th High Criminal Court. The panel of judges ruled for the release of all four journalists and adjourned the hearing until July 2.
Mesopotamia News Agency (MA) reporters Adnan Bilen and Cemil Uğur, Jinnews reporter Şehriban Abi and journalist Nazan Sala; who were arrested on October 9, 2020 following the news report on Osman Şiban and Servet Turgut being thrown off a helicopter and tortured by security officials; and MA reporter Zeynep Durgut appeared before court for the first time today. The four journalists who have been imprisoned for 175 days, and Durgut, who is tried without pre-trial detention, joined the hearing via the video-conferencing link (SEGBİS).
Turkish Journalists’ Union (TGS) Chair Gökhan Durmuş and Diyarbakır representative Mahmut Oral, Dicle Fırat Journalists Association Co-Chair Dicle Müftüoğlu, Mesopotamia Women Journalists Platform spokesperson Ayşe Güney and independent member of parliament Ahmet Şık were among those monitoring the hearing. The hearing was followed by many journalists including those from Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) and Press in Arrest.
Those waiting to monitor the hearing were initially notified that no journalists or observers would be allowed to enter the courtroom by the presiding judge, who later on agreed to let four observers in, following the negotiations he had with lawyers. The phones and computers of the four journalists who entered the courtroom were taken away.
Bilen: “This trial will go down in history”
Following the identity checks, MA reporter Adnan Bilen was the first to take the floor: “We are journalists, and this trial puts journalism on the defense. This is the trial of all opposing journalists, and will go down in history.”
“Speak about the parts concerning yourself, everybody knows,” said the presiding judge interrupting Bilen. Bilen stated that he has been a journalist for 20 years and has not faced such a situation before and continued: “I was asked at the police station about two phone calls I made. The first call was made with the Van Medical Association Chair. The latter was with a lawyer, whom I consulted about an ECHR decision regarding their client. How could these be criminal acts?”
Bilen: “Tens of thousands of journalists do not own a press card in Turkey”
Remarking the piece of evidence consisting of the photos he took during the 2015 Newroz celebrations with a note saying “took photos of flags of terrorist organization members,” Bilen said, “Nowhere in the world, could this constitute a crime. Those photos I took were taken by all of us. We were all there. All channels broadcasted the whole thing. I was convicted of “terrorist propaganda” and I received a sentence of which the announcement was deferred.”
Noting that they were asked for yellow press cards, Bilen remarked how the indictment states that they lacked it. He said, “A press card is an accredited card. The Communications Directorate cancelled the press cards of 680 persons in the course of four months. 90% of the foreign media left the country. There are tens of thousands of journalists who do not own a yellow press card in Turkey. Only 12 out of more than a hundred members of the Van Lake Journalists Community own a yellow press card.”
Bilen also reminded the court that in the lawsuit on the nullity of the press card regulations, the Communications Directorate had underlined the fact that the accredited card was “not of defining but of facilitative nature.”
Bilen: “Publishing policy of an agency cannot be designated by a reporter”
Bilen continued his defense by saying: “A reporter cannot designate the publishing policy of an agency. Me and my friends here, we can be held responsible for what we did. We are reporters. We are not responsible for the actions of the agency. We have our headquarters in İstanbul, we have a publishing board.”
“Lastly, this injustice has to come to an end. We have been in prison for six months. For months, we were not informed about what we were accused of. We were locked away from our homes, our jobs and our freedoms for the course of this pandemic. This injustice has to stop.”
Bilen, who was frequently interrupted by the presiding judge, completed his defense statement by restating they “could not believe the accusations when the indictment arrived.”
Presiding judge leaves the courtroom
Following Bilen’s statement, it was noticed that the presiding judge had had the courtroom locked, as Van Bar Association Chair Zülküf Uçar attempted to enter the room. The courtroom was locked again after Uçar was let in.
The presiding judge requested less lawyers be present in the courtroom due to the COVID-19 measures. Police officers entered the courtroom to remove the lawyers. Following the dispute between the panel of judges and the defense, the presiding judge left the courtroom. Later, he was persuaded to return, after having a talk with Bar Association Chair Uçar.
The hearing continued with the defense statement of journalist Nazan Sala: “We are not the ones on the defense here, journalism is. I have been working as a journalist for 15 years. The yellow press card is not something that is taken into account. I owned one between the years 2010 and 2017. Following the shut-down of the newspaper in 2017 by a governmental decree, my card was cancelled. Following the local elections in 2019, I worked as the director of the press unit of the municipality. That is, until the appointment of the trustee. I filed a lawsuit after I was fired, and tried to do freelance journalism in the meantime. I worked for a legit agency with a number of correspondents based in different places. I won the case, and was returned to my job. Then, I got arrested. If my work place was to be raided by the police, the municipality should have been raided.”
Sala: “What is more ordinary than a journalist keeping newspapers in her archive?”
Noting that she had penned numerous news reports regarding the pandemic, Sala stated none of these were included in the indictment but instead, only a selection of her reports from specific dates was. She said, “The indictment also mentions the newspaper archive I keep at home. I have an archive consisting of 10 newspapers published between the years 2010 and 2016. The indictment presents these as criminal elements. There is no decision to pull these papers off the shelves. What is more ordinary than a journalist keeping newspapers in her archive?”
Sala, who is also charged with “terrorist propaganda” based on the open research conducted regarding her social media accounts, also touched upon the posts mentioned in the indictment:
“I have over 300 tweets posted on my Twitter account. There are many tweets and retweets on numerous subjects from child abuse to workplace deaths. However the prosecution intentionally selected only a few tweets.”
The presiding judge interrupted Sala by saying, “do not go into things that are criminal elements.” Sala continued her defense by stating that it would have been made clear if the research was done thoroughly, that the posts in question did not belong to her, but appeared on her profile because she was tagged by others.
Sala: “I have to take medicine due to the operations I underwent”
Noting that she was only able to make it through the support of her ward friends, Sala said: “We have been imprisoned for six months. I have to take medicine due to the operations I underwent. I was able to get a medical toilet device after our third month. I had serious health problems. There are those who stay in quarantine for days, even months.”
“There is an interference upon us journalists, especially Kurdish journalists. Nobody can be free in a country where there is no free press. I demand to be released and acquitted.”
Sala: “Is it a crime to report on women’s issues and child abuse?”
Sala was asked whether she would accept the deferral of the announcement of the verdict as per the “terrorist propaganda” charges, to which she responded positively.
Following Sala, Jinnews reporter Şehriban Abi took the floor to present her defense: “In 2019, I started working for Jinnews on a piecework basis, a news agency founded as per Turkish laws in 2018. Our indictment was prepared as we marked our fifth month behind bars. Although it is called an indictment… Technical surveillance was conducted during the first four months of 2020. I penned news reports on women’s issues and child abuse, is this a crime?”
“Although we are indicted for ‘membership in a terrorist organization,’ the indictment could not reach such determination.”
The presiding judge warned the journalists who were quietly talking to each other in the courtroom by saying, “Do not speak to each other.” Afterwards, he asked Abi: “There is a notebook in your file, what do you have to say about that?” Abi answered: “I am a journalist, I transfer the contact information from my phone to the notebook, in case my phone is lost or broken. I do not know who is a member of the terrorist organization and who is not, I cannot know. I am a journalist, this has no organizational meaning.”
Uğur: “I was arrested because I reported on two citizens being thrown off a helicopter”
MA reporter Cemil Uğur later took the stand to present his defense statement. He began by raising an objection to the indictment: “I am a journalist and journalism is on trial here. The indictment claims we only reported on social events, and not on natural or sports related events, or tabloid news; when in fact we had taken those photos engraved upon the public memory after the Van Başkale earthquake. The fact that we are working for Mesopotamia News Agency is presented as a criminal element, whereas the agency is a legally established entity with an official trade registry.”
Underscoring the fact that he was arrested because he reported on two citizens being thrown off a helicopter, Uğur pointed out that news on torture carry a high public interest:
“The phone call I was asked about was made to my news source. I was arrested because I reported on two citizens being thrown off a helicopter, which is not a crime. The source of our news report is the medical reports and eye witness statements. These kinds of news on torture carry a high public interest.”
“I did not see the images on that phone or posted them on social media. I do not accept these accusations raised for fulfilling my duty as a journalist, because journalism is not a crime.”
Durgut: “How could reporting on March 8 be considered a crime in a country where hundreds of women are murdered?”
Journalist Zeynep Durgut, who is tried without pre-trial detention, joined the hearing from Cizre via SEGBİS: “An arrest warrant was issued in my name following the detainment of my four friends. Reporting on March 8 demonstrations is considered as an offense. The TV programme I appeared on does not concern me. Even if A Haber called me today, I could report for them. I am a journalist. How could reporting on March 8 be considered a crime in a country where hundreds of women are murdered? I think this is unlawful.”
Durgut said she mainly reported on women’s and children’s issues, in addition to nature-related news and added: “I worked six years for Jinnews. My statements on Sterk TV were presented as criminal elements. I demand my acquittal.”
Presiding judge: “You are too excited”
After the completion of the defense statements, lawyer Ekin Yeter took the floor to request the panel to listen to two witnesses. The presiding judge answered, “Why bother? You are too excited.”
Following the defenses of the defendants, lawyers began delivering their statements. First lawyer to take the floor was Murat Timur, who began his statement by requesting the presiding judge to not interrupt him.
Timur stated that the news report regarding two citizens being thrown off a helicopter constituted the essence of the case file. He noted that they reached this conclusion from the 28-page phone records belonging to Bilen, of which 27 pages were related to the aforementioned news report. “Seven journalists’ phones were tapped for two months by a court order, as they were thought to be members of the Cultural Committee. Afterwards, these records were officially declared to be annihilated. Seven months later, my client was asked about these phone calls at the police station. The Constitutional Court’s (TCC) İlhan Gökhan decision clearly states that these records cannot be considered evidence,” Timur said.
“I guess the prosecutor is expecting a penguin documentary, however there are no penguins in Van”
Noting they were informed about a confidentiality order during the process led by the police force, Timur said, “We were told we could not access any documents from the case file due to the confidentiality order. No evidence was reviewed, which constitutes a serious violation with regards to the rights of the defendant. The right to liberty has been violated arbitrarily for six months. Not even our objections against the decision of detention were reviewed. Four out of eight of our requests for release were rejected on ‘printed justifications.’ As in the remaining four, the prosecutor who requested the detention held on to our petitions in order to deliver them before the judge who ruled for the journalists’ imprisonment.”
Remarking that the prosecutor had prepared the indictment from their own point of view, Timur said: “The prosecutor questions the lack of tabloid or sports-related news. I guess from his own point of view, he expects a penguin documentary, however there are no penguins in Van. Does he expect to see news about Van cats? The prosecutor’s indictment is a political document.”
Lastly, Timur touched upon the questioning of his client’s identity as a journalist and stated, “Press cards are not mandatory. Yesterday, the Plenary Session of Administrative Law Divisions ruled for the suspension of execution of the press card regulation, on the grounds that some of its provisions are arbitrary. It is publicly known that this is a journalism case. I request the release and acquittal of my client.”
“You seized the phones of journalists and did not even include it in the minutes”
MLSA Co-Director lawyer Veysel Ok took the floor to submit his defense statement: “I have been working as a lawyer in the field of freedom of expression for 16 years, and as the co-director of an NGO working in the same field.”
“I was planning to present a TCC decision in this hearing, involving a provision forbidding the seizure of the digital materials of journalists, however you began by seizing the phones and computers of the journalists monitoring the hearing. You did not even include this in the minutes. I request the phones and computers be returned to the journalists, so that they are able to report. I will wait for your decision upon this request before moving on to my defense.”
The prosecutor responded to Ok’s request and stated that there was no decision of seizure but a preventive measure against audio or visual recording in the courtroom, which he considered to be clear and apparent, and requested the rejection of Ok’s request. The panel of judges repeated that this was not a decision of seizure but a measure against audio or visual recording; and rejected lawyer Ok’s request.
Ok continued his defense as follows: “The journalists were detained based on the evidence gathered during the detainment, without the existence of reasonable doubt. The torture news reports are on trial here. We are all aware that this is the reason behind the 6-month imprisonment of these journalists. The enquiry report is directly included in the indictment. A text which consists solely of the ideas of the prosecutor is the basis. Access ban decisions over the websites of the media outlets where the journalists are employed, are frequently underlined by the prosecutor. On what authorization does the prosecutor present the lack of sports or tabloid news as evidence for “membership in a terrorist organization?” This indictment is an insult to us lawyers as well. What could a journalist do in Van, other than report on recurring rights violations?”
“How could an agency paying insurance and bonuses be a terrorist organization’s media outlet?”
“An access ban decision is not a conviction, but a judicial measure imposed by criminal judgeships of peace. If that was the case, hundreds of writers and reporters would be members of the terrorist organization. Mesopotamia News Agency is still an active, tax paying news agency, with an official trade registry. The indictment claims this outlet to be a terrorist organization. Then shut it down. You claim the employees of an insurance and bonus-paying outlet to be terrorists. Does the state set up traps for its citizens? In a recommendation, the European Council states that the phone, computer, and notebook belonging to a journalist cannot be seized unless there is clear and apparent evidence. Just as I cannot seize the Law of Criminal Procedure resting on your desk, you cannot seize those either.” Ok remarked once again that the indictment is unlawful, requested the release and acquittal of all defendants, and completed his defense statement.
“Zeynep Durgut is tried without detention because she appeared before a different criminal judgeship of peace”
Following Ok’s defense statement, the lawyer of Sala and Durgut, Ekin Yeter, took the floor. She drew attention to the fact that her client Durgut, who produced similar news content, had appeared before another criminal judgeship of peace who had said “I do not find your agency to be objective, but these claims do not constitute an offense,” and did not rule to put her into pre-trial detention. Yeter added: “The indictment regarding the case file upon which there was a confidentiality order was imposed, proved there exists no single tangible evidence, or an accusation apart from occupational activities being considered as criminal elements. Why would reporting on a rights violation that occurred in a prison be considered as enmity towards the state? Torture news will indeed disturb those in power, but it is the supervisory duty of the press to report on it.”
Lawyer Veysi Atay reminded the court that, according to the reports by international organizations, one third of all journalists imprisoned around the world, are imprisoned in Turkey. He added that the number would be much higher, if those under judicial control measures or face legal harassment are included.
“The yellow press card is a trump card played against critical journalists”
After Atay, Cemil Uğur’s lawyer Naim Çali took the floor: “The indictment itself acquits my client. The elements linked to the crime are books, newspapers and one phone call. The main reason for this case is the helicopter incident.” Touching upon the issue of the yellow press card, Çali stated that this is the trump card played by the government to say ‘There are no imprisoned journalists.’ The books for which there exists no court order to pull off the shelves, are not written by my client. Therefore, it is not possible to hold him responsible for the contents of the books,” explained Çali and requested the acquittal of his client.
Lawyer Resul Tamur stated that even if it was tried to make a connection between the press unit mentioned in the KCK convention and the Van Bureau of Mesopotamia Agency, this would not be possible. He reminded that the agency’s headquarters are in Istanbul and said: “The case is only associated with Van to fill the file.”
“The indictment presents the access ban decisions as decisions of closure”
“The indictment mentions access ban decisions. In fact, this is a control measure. The access ban is aimed at the whole site without taking a defense,” said Tamur. Emphasizing that the indictment attempts to create the impression that these agencies have been closed, he explained that this is not what an access ban means: “There is no closure decision for the Mesopotamia Agency, Jinnews and Yeni Yaşam, they are still legal media outlets. This is a distortion.”
Lawyer Barış Oflas, underlined that the investigation was launched to illegalize Mesopotamia Agency, Jinnews and Yeni Yaşam: “The case was initiated after the helicopter news. How do we know this? The prosecutor investigating the torture accusations of the citizens thrown out of the helicopter and the prosecutor investigating this case, are one and the same.”
Footage of lawyer Oflas’ wedding is presented as evidence in the file
Oflas reminded that a dress was included in the file and stated that “the yellow, red and green colored dress was claimed to be an ‘organizational’ dress’. This is something we saw for the first time in this file.” Mentioning that footage from his own wedding is presented as evidence in the file, Oflas said: “Since there was no evidence in the file, even the footage of my colleagues dancing on stage during my wedding ceremony, which was captured on the phone of Cemil Uğur, was claimed to be propaganda for a terrorist organisation, as if Cemil was going to share these images with the public.”
Bar Association Chair: “Those who carried out the investigation were subject to serious pressure”
Lawyer Uçar, Van Bar Association Chair, said: “The indictment does not reflect the truth about the incident. The case is about the throwing of two citizens out of a helicopter. The colleagues who produced the news did so by basing them on relevant documents. From the very beginning of the investigation, we have observed serious pressure on those conducting the investigation.”
Repeating again that the journalists are charged for not reporting tabloid news, Uçar stated: “We would also like to always read tabloid news if there weren’t people who are killed or tortured. But each new day we wake up wondering what violation will occur today.”
“Council of State, TCC and Directorate of Communications themselves assert that the press card is not mandatory”
Taking the floor after Uçar, lawyer Ülkü Şahin from the Journalists’ Union of Turkey spoke about the accusation of the journalists’ not holding yellow press cards: “Currently, half of the journalists in Turkey are not holding a press card. The Journalists’ Union of Turkey applied to the Directorate of Communications to obtain information about journalists holding a press card and working with insurance. It was answered that as of December 20, 2020 nearly 9000 journalists had a press card. It was also stated that 17,500 people are working with insurance. This shows that 50 % of the journalists in Turkey do not own a press card. That said, the Council of State’s Coordination Board of Internal Auditing yesterday declared that the provisions of the press card regulation have been causing arbitrary judgements and that the implementation was suspended. Moreover, in its Beyza Kural decision, the TCC accepted the applicant as a journalist despite the fact that she lacked a press card and handed down an infringement decision. As can be seen, the Council of State, the TCC and the Directorate of Communications itself have acknowledged that the accredited press card is not mandatory.”
Lawyer Zelal Pelin Doğan also presented the report of independent member of parliament Ahmet Şık to the court, in which Şık, by talking to the witnesses and victims, revealed that the serious injury of Osman Şiban and the death of Servet Turgut were caused by torture.
Prosecutor requested the continuation of the journalists’ detention
Being asked for their opinion upon the defense statements of the lawyers, the prosecutor requested the continuation of the journalists’ detention. Following a short recess, the panel of judges announced its decision to release all four journalists; Adnan Bilen, Cemil Uğur, Şehriban Abi and Nazan Sala. The court imposed judicial control measures on the journalists, requiring them to provide their signatures once a month and placing them under an international travel ban. The next hearing will be held on July 2, 2021.