Trial monitoring study conducted by the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) and the International Press Institute (IPI) over the last year has verified that Turkish courts try defendants in an unlawful manner even when the only evidence against them are written or spoken expressions. The monitoring clearly puts forth that statements and news reports that must be evaluated within the right to information and free speech are handed down grave prison sentences and high judicial fines.
Supported by the European Commission’s Civil Society Support Programme-II and Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF), the project was conducted between February 2019 and March 2020. Its findings show that defendants of freedom of expression cases are tried in violation of international legal standards, further identifying a large number of systematic violations of the right to a fair trial and verifying that defendants who stand trial for journalistic work often face terror-related charges.
Commenting on the findings of the report, MLSA Co-Director Lawyer Veysel Ok stated that theirs is the most comprehensive trial monitoring report written in Turkey. Ok stressed upon the fact that journalism as a profession, is still associated with terrorism in Turkey, as in most of the trials, “The evidence is made up of social media posts, news stories, articles and TV broadcasts.”
Remarking that the number of acquittals is still very low, Ok mentioned that they also observed some minor improvements, as there was a decrease in the use of the video-conference link (SEGBİS) and in the number of defendants put into pre-trial detention. According to Ok, this does not mean that the general situation of journalists in Turkey is improving, since “On a global scale, Turkey still has one of the highest number of journalists in prison. The violation of the right to fair trial continues, as well as the judges’ unconstitutional practices which are also in contradiction with international legal standards.” Ok stated that, besides presenting their findings to the public, they will be sharing their report with the Ministry of Justice and international institutions, and added, “MLSA will continue to monitor freedom of expression trials in Turkey. We are now working in collaboration with European Endowment for Democracy (EED) in order to raise awareness about, and increase the visibility of the violations of the right to a fair trial.”
You can read the full report here.
MLSA monitored 319 hearings covering 169 separate freedom of expression trials between February 26, 2019 and March 6, 2020.
Over the course of this period, hearings were monitored in 15 cities by 19 separate court monitors across Turkey. The breakdown of hearings monitored per city is as follows: Ankara (44), Balıkesir (3), Batman (2), Bitlis (1), Denizli (3), Diyarbakır (34), Erzurum (1), Hatay (1), İstanbul (206), İzmir (8), Mersin (1), Muş (1), Şırnak (1), Tunceli (1), Van (12).
Cases monitored included defendants of different professions, with a strong focus on journalists but also including academics, writers, lawyers, and human rights defenders. In 98 of the 169 cases (60%) defendants were charged with terrorism-related offenses.
In 76% of the of cases where journalists faced charges from the Anti-Terror Law, the prosecution relied primarily on journalistic work as evidence (social media posts, published articles and news reports, statements made during TV broadcasts, announcements made during live TV reporting). This showed that Turkish judiciary is prone to linking journalistic work with terrorism.
A total of 89 journalists were convicted during this period. 69 of these sentences (78%) were handed down for charges under the Anti-Terror Law.
The Trial Monitoring Report also includes detailed case studies in different categories of charges. In a comprehensive section, the report lists terrorism-related charges with sub-sections on each organization that the journalists have allegedly aided or committed propaganda for. Detailed information on cases where journalists faced “terror propaganda,” “aiding and abetting a terrorist organization without being a member” and “membership in a terrorist organization” charges with specific examples from hearings and statements made by journalists.
Insulting the President; denigrating the Turkish nation, the State of the Turkish Republic or its judicial institutions; legal pressure on financial and investigative journalism and revealing state secrets are also discussed in separate sections, clearly putting forward how these articles of the Turkish Penal Code have been instrumentalized for prosecuting journalists.
There has been a general improvement in the conditions in which hearings are taking place with several of the problems identified in the early stages of the trial monitoring showing a marked improvement over the year. These include:
- The numbers of defendants held in pre-trial detention has gradually fallen.
- Courtroom conditions have generally improved with monitors reporting adverse conditions in over 50 percent of hearings at the beginning of the year dropping to under 20 percent of hearings by the end.
- The use of the video conferencing system SEGBIS for defendants to testify from prison when they had been refused permission to attend their trials, has also dropped significantly. In the first report covering the last six months of 2018, 15 of the 44 hearings monitored (34 percent) used SEGBIS. The monitors recorded 15 hearings over the whole of the last twelve months.
However, the right to a lawful judge remains a concerning topic with 27 percent of cases having seen a change of at least one member of the judicial panel. In 22 percent of the cases, it was the presiding judge who was changed.
In most of these cases, changes to the panel of judges occurred in later stages of trials, which further slows proceedings as new judges need time to familiarize themselves with the case. Appointments of new judges later in a trial undermines the impartiality of judges that appear to have been appointed to deliver pre-determined verdicts in cases they are unfamiliar with.