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MP Şık: Journalists arrested in Van punished for report on villagers pushed out of chopper

Haluk Kalafat

In the early hours of October 6, 2020, the houses of several journalists in Turkey’s eastern province of Van were raided. Pro-Kurdish Mesopotamia News Agency (MA) employees Cemil Uğur and Adnan Bilen, Jinnews reporter Şehriban Abi, freelance journalist Nazan Sala, Yeni Yaşam newspaper distributor Fehim Çetiner and former distributor Şükran Erdem were detained.

Cemil Uğur’s recent news report had remained on the public’s agenda for a long time. Carrying the headline “Two days after their detention, they turned up in hospital” he had reported on September 13, 2020 about an event that later became known as “the villagers thrown out of a helicopter”.

Uğur doggedly continued to follow the story. On September 16, he wrote a news story titled “The torture that Şiban suffered in custody was documented in the report” and on September 17, he published another article under the title “Forensic report of the person who is said to have been thrown out of a helicopter: He fell from height.”

Another news story published on September 17 showed a photograph that will not be forgotten for a long time. Osman Şiban, one of the two villagers who were detained while working in a field in the Çıtak county of Van, was released from the intensive care unit and taken to the hospital service. Cemil Uğur met and photographed Osman Şiban, who still suffered memory loss due to the torture he had endured. Şiban’s bloodshot eyes stood out as evidence of the maltreatment he had received.

Osman Şiban was released from the hospital on September 20 while Servet Turgut, who had been detained together with Şiban, was still in intensive care due to his critical condition. Turgut died in the hospital on September 30, 2020. 

Ahmet Şıks report

Independent MP Ahmet Şık prepared a report about what happened to Servet Turgut and the survivor Osman Şiban. His report is based on research conducted in the region where the event happened and on talks with Şiban, who is back home in Mersin now. The report was presented during a press conference held at Turkish Parliament on November 2. 

The report describes in detail what happened the day that Şiban and Turgut were detained and how they were tortured. Şık, who was a journalist before entering politics, also touches upon the situation of the journalists who reported this incident to the world. The title of the prepared report is quite revealing: “How the Lies of the Perpetrators Turned into a ‘Truth’ to Cover up the Lynching of the State.”

The incident, which Mesopotamia Agency’s Van reporterUğur followed step by step, made the headlines again when the forensic report drafted following hospitalization of Osman Şiban was revealed. The news report titled “Hospital report confirmed: They were thrown from height” and published on 20 September by Cemil Uğur, states that according to the forensic report, Şiban was admitted to the hospital with the allegation of “injury after falling from a helicopter.” Another note was found in the report: “After falling from height, the police notified the medical teams via 112 which brought him to the emergency room.” This is why the news turned into what we now know as “Villagers thrown out of helicopter.” 

Ahmet Şık: We wouldn’t have heard this news without our journalist friends

In the report he prepared, Ahmet Şık explains in detail how law enforcement fabricated the “jumping off the helicopter” story in order to cover up the torture and mass lynching attempt. He points out that his colleagues who followed the news did exemplary journalism. 

Responding to our questions, Şık underlines that the journalists who were detained on October 6 were “punished” especially for producing this news: 

“Our journalist colleagues were arrested in Van on the grounds of an investigation opened 6 months ago. I think this is an excuse. Everything is very clear. The state punishes the kind of journalism that reveals the hasty attempt to cover up the crimes of law enforcement. They might justify the arrests by another investigation launched before this incident, that’s just an excuse. This arrest was used as a ‘means of punishment.’ I think they would not be in prison if they hadn’t reported on this.”

“This also shows us something else: They keep files ready at their disposal against all dissident voices who try to uncover the crimes and errors of Turkey’s current regime and use them as a ‘means of punishment’ when the time comes. Our friends were arrested and detained solely for their journalistic activities. We would not have heard of this event if we did not have these friends who are working as journalists despite having any life security or legal assurance in the region.”

“No other journalist knocked on families’ doors”

“Not a single journalist knocked on the door of Osman Şiban’s house in Mersin, or of deceased Servet Turgut’s in Van. I listened to this in surprise during my visits. Whether it is about being thrown out of a helicopter or being mass lynched by soldiers, there are two citizens, one has been killed and one has been heavily injured as a result of torture by the hands of state. Wherever you are in the world, this would be in the news; but not a single person went and knocked on their doors. Those who call themselves a journalist should also ask themselves ‘What am I doing?’ Those of us who pretend to be a journalist and call the colleagues who produced the news ‘terrorists, not journalists’ should ask themselves how much of a newspaper their workplace is and how much of a journalist they are themselves. “

“Why is there legislation in this country, why are there laws?”

Ahmet Şık explains the similarity of the state’s efforts to cover this incident up with the commonly used “falling from height while running away from law enforcement” excuse as follows: 

“The statement made by the Minister of the Interior on TGRT intended to use this same cover-up. After saying something about a conflict, he adds: ‘they see that these men have thrown something in the river, but they see that they don’t have a gun, so they don’t kill them. While law enforcement was trying to detain them, they run away and fall off the cliffs.’ He continues the lie of the governor. At that time, the allegations of the throwing from the helicopter were on the agenda; he says the helicopter door does not open while flying. In the same speech, he says that images were taken by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and that ‘links between these people and houses entered and exited by terrorists have been found.’ So where are the images? But that’s not the point anyway. Even if it was true, is this the means of punishment? Why do we have legislation in this country, why are there laws? What are the judges sitting in courtrooms and the prosecutors for? If there is an alleged crime, you bring it to court, and try the defendant fairly. You are obliged to this; will you beat everyone you catch to death without questioning, without interrogating, without judging him? “

“We are talking about a mass lynching attempt” 

“There is another point that needs to be noted. According to the testimony of Osman Şiban, 100-150 soldiers took part in the lynching. It is not possible to know this number for certain, but we are talking about a mass lynching attempt in which a large number of soldiers participated. There is a gendarmerie corps in Van; they are carrying out such a mass attack in front of the entire line of officers, from the commander of the area up to the colonel and captain. This means they know that they will not face a sanction. This is a crime against humanity. Does that not raise questions like: Have they done similar things before? To whom did they do it? “

Azad Altay: They were arrested for the news about villagers thrown out from the helicopter

Four days after being arrested, journalists Cemil Uğur, Adnan Bilen, Şehriban Abi and Nazan Sala were arrested October 10 under “membership in a terrorist organization” allegation. At the same time, the newspaper distributors were released with an international travel ban and under judicial control measures. 

Cemil Uğur is the author of the news report on “Villagers thrown out of helicopter.” Adnan Bilen is the Chief of Mesopotamia News Agency’s Van Office. After Bilen was arrested, Azad (Gökhan) Altay, one of MA’s employees, took over his post temporarily. 

According to him Şehriban Abi and Nazan Sala, who did not work for MA, and two newspaper distributors were included in the investigation to convey the impression that the raid was not carried out because of the news about the “villagers thrown out of the helicopter.” He added right away: “They wanted to create such a perception, but it did not hold. Because the journalists who made the report were arrested, that is difficult to hide.”

It is stated that an investigation was launched against the journalists for their reporting six months ago, but Altay states that they do not know for which news reports:

“They keep a confidentiality order on the file. There is not even a list of seized materials, not to mention the type of details in the file. Therefore, it is not clear for which news reports this investigation was launched for. General questions were asked during the interrogation and they did not focus on a particular news report.”

When the journalists were first detained, it was reported that they were subjected to ill-treatment such as cold cells and bad food. Altay says that after the mandatory 14-day quarantine, his friends were taken to regular wards and they have not been subject to this kind of treatment anymore. Alta states that journalists said the thing they lack the most is solidarity in their final meeting with their lawyers. The four imprisoned journalists seek the support of professional organizations, human rights organizations and colleagues.

Altay also conveys that they are particularly uncomfortable with the attitude of the national press:

“The national press took an insensitive position from the very beginning. Beyond insensitivity, they are at a point at which they only go through official statements. Therefore, the way in which they reflect the issue since our journalist friends have been arrested is not compatible with professional principles. They reflected it as an operation against a terrorist organization. “

However, there is currently no problem in terms of legal support. In addition to MA’s lawyers, the journalists’ own lawyers and the Van Bar Association are closely following the case.

Veysel Ok: Arrest warrants are the sword of Damocles for journalists

Another association that keeps track of the file is the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA). MLSA Co-Directors Veysel Ok and Barış Altıntaş went to Van on October 27 to learn about the situation of the journalists. 

Veysel Ok explains that the latest objection to the journalists’ arrest was rejected: “The court rejected the latest objection to their arrest on October 26. We are getting ready to apply to the Constitutional Court. This arrest warrant is very significant. This is the worst arrest warrant I have encountered lately. Taking into account this decision, many journalists can be arrested for reporting against the state by alleging that they harm the state’s fight against terrorism. Because the things these four journalists cover are about wrong practices of the state, uncovering and criticizing them. This verdict will hang over journalists like the sword of Damocles.”

In the arrest warrant the following allegations can be found: “reporting on social events in favour of the terrorist organization PKK/KCK, against the state,” “agitation and propaganda in favour of the organization and its supporters / sympathizers on news sites that support the organization,” “producing news in a continuous, diverse and intense way,” “collecting news for agencies for a fee by identifying themselves as freelance journalists, even if they do not carry the press card that can only be given to those who meet the conditions determined by the Presidency’s Directorate of Communication,” “making news criticizing, humiliating and aiming at the defamation of the Republic of Turkey’s counterterrorism methods and activities.”

“We will take this case to the ECHR” 

Veysel Ok emphasizes that according to this verdict “anyone can easily be accused of being a ‘terrorist’ at any time. It is a scary decision for the journalism profession. That’s why we got involved in this case. After the Constitutional Court stage, we will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).”

Veysel Ok met with four journalists separately during his latest visit to Van. He states that they are in good psychological and physical condition. “Van is a distant place, the journalism done here should not get out of sight. Journalists and the profession need support. We are now waiting for the indictment to be prepared. On the day of their first hearing, we will go and defend these four journalists and journalism both.”