At the first hearing of the lawsuit brought against journalist Sinan Aygül under Turkey’s Disinformation Law, the court sentenced the journalist to 10 months in prison and did not defer the announcement of the verdict. Journalist Aygül exercised his right to remain silent and did not defend himself in order to protest the Censorship Law. The first hearing of the trial in which the Chair of the Turkish Journalists Association in Bitlis Sinan Aygül whom MLSA also represents, faces “openly disseminating information misleading the public (Article 217/A of Turkish Penal Code)” charge was held in the Tatvan 1st Criminal Court of First Instance. Aygül attended the hearing together with his lawyers Diyar Orak and Emine Özhasar of MLSA’s Legal Team. In addition to Aygül’s colleagues, the hearing was also followed by CPJ Turkey Representative Özgür Öğret and the Journalists' Union of Turkey (TGS) lawyer Ülkü Şahin. The hearing started with identification and the summary of the indictment being read. Journalist Aygül stated that he will exercise his right to remain silent and will not be defending himself in order to protest the Censorship Law. The court noted Aygül’s protest in the minutes of the hearing as “It is understood that the defendant will not make a statement.”
Lawyers requested the case file to be reviewed by the Constitutional Court
Lawyer Özhasar began her defense by saying that they will present their arguments on the procedure before presenting their defense on the merits of the case. Özhasar recalled that Article 217/A has been added to the Turkish Penal Code with an omnibus bill passed on 13 October 2022. Arguing that the said article is against the constitution and the international conventions to which Turkey is a party, Özhasar requested the court to send the case file to the Constitutional Court so that the high court can examine the relevant law article. Özhasar further requested for the court to wait for the finalization of the examination. Özhasar recalled that the main opposition party brought the so-called Disinformation Law before the Constitutional Court and the Court accepted to examine the essence of Article 217/A. Özhasar said that if the court is not inclined to send the case file to the Constitutional Court, it should nevertheless wait for the Constitutional Court’s examination of Article 217/A to be finalized. Özhasar argued that her client’s rights might be gravely violated if the Constitutional Court repeals Article 217/A after Aygül is sentenced to prison. Moving on with her arguments regarding the essence of the case, Özhasar urged the court to consider that her client is a journalist who, as per the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, carries out public duty as one of the watchdogs in a democratic society. Özhasar concluded her arguments by emphasizing the unconstitutionality of Article 217/A and by requesting the acquittal of her client if the court nevertheless moves to adjudicate the case.
Aygül’s phones were illegally tapped during the investigation
Taking the floor after Özhasar, lawyer Diyar Orak emphasized the case has been unlawful from the beginning. Orak shared with the court that the Bitlis governor called and threatened his client after Aygül shared the tweet cited in the indictment. Orak stated that the investigation against Aygül was biased from the beginning as Aygül’s house was searched late in the evening under the guise of searching for evidence despite the fact a tweet is currently the only evidence in the case file. Orak also shared with the court that the phones of his client who spent eight days in prison were illegally tapped during the investigation. Orak also shared with the court that in his tweet Aygül tagged public authorities and argued that this proves that Aygül had no intention to provoke the public and to commit an offense. Orak also emphasized that even though a journalist is not obliged to corroborate his reports, his client later corrected himself with a tweet and the tweets he shared after this correction tweet were not included in the case file by the prosecution. Presenting these tweets to the court, Orak requested Aygül’s acquittal on the grounds that the elements of the alleged offense did not occur.
The court rejected the request of Constitutional Court examination
Taking the floor after the defense, the prosecutor requested the lawyers’ requests to be rejected. The judge ruled to reject the requests of Aygül’s lawyers for the Constitutional Court to examine the case file and for the Court to wait for the finalization of the Constitutional Court’s examination of Article 217/A on the grounds that the article was added to the Penal Code in accordance with the law.
The prosecutor requested imprisonment at the first hearing
After the judge’s decision, the prosecutor presented his final opinion as to the accusations. Citing Aygül’s tweet in which he had shared the allegations of a 14 years old being sexually assaulted, the prosecutor argued that the elements of the offense Aygül has been charged with have occurred and requested the journalist to be sentenced for “openly disseminating information misleading the public.” Aygül refused to defend himself against the prosecutor’s final opinion and exercised his right to remain silent.
10 months prison sentence for Aygül
Aygül’s lawyers did not request additional time for preparing their arguments against the final opinion and stated that they do not agree with the prosecutor’s final opinion. Reiterating their previous arguments, lawyers requested Aygül’s acquittal. After a short recess, the judge sentenced Aygül to 1 year in prison for “openly disseminating information misleading the public” and decreased the sentence as per Article 62 of the Turkish Penal Code. Citing Aygül’s previous convictions, the judge ruled not to defer the announcement of the verdict. The judge also decided not to suspend the prison sentence on the grounds that the court did not form a positive opinion regarding the prospect of Aygül repeating the offense. Aygül’s lawyers will appeal against the court’s verdict.
As evidence against the journalist, the prosecutor presents a tweet Aygül had shared on his personal account on 13 December 2022 and in which he shared the allegations of a 14 year old child being sexually assaulted in Tatvan. In the one-page indictment, the prosecutor claims that “after investigating the matter, it was determined that no sexual assault reported to the prosecutor’s office that day.” The prosecutor states that “a criminal investigation was launched after an unsubstantiated news report was shared about sexual abuse of a child which is one of the sensitive issues in the country.” Summarizing the statements Aygül had given at the police and the prosecutor’s office, the prosecutor claims that Aygül also admitted to his guilt in a tweet he shared after the initial one. The prosecutor argues that by sharing such allegations Aygül “portrayed the members of the law enforcements as suspects” and that Aygül shared these allegations as the Chair of the Turkish Journalists Association in Bitlis which helped them reach a wider audience. The prosecutor requests the journalist to be sentenced by the maximum limit. Aygül was arrested over the suspicion of “openly disseminating information misleading the public” and was released on 22 December 2022 after being held in pre-trial detention for eight days. *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).