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On March 21, 2017, 23-year-old Kermal Kurkut, who attended the Newroz celebration in Diyarbakır, was killed by a police officer’s bullet for no reason. The police officer who killed Kurkut said that he shot the teenager because he suspected that he was a suicide bomber. As he said this, the police officer was unaware of the fact that journalist Abdurrahman Gök had captured those moments frame by frame. In the eight shots showing the last minutes of Kurkut’s short life, it can be seen that the young man was naked.
The photos revealed the murder of an innocent young man to the whole world. However, the perpetrators remain unpunished. The accused police officer was acquitted. Instead, the target of the judiciary became journalist Gök, who enabled us to learn about the circumstances under which Kurkut was murdered.
Gök, who graduated from the Faculty of Communication of Ege University, has been working as a journalist for 18 years. Working as a reporter, regional news director, editor, and news director at Dicle News Agency (DİHA) in Batman, Ankara, Istanbul, Van, and Diyarbakır, the journalist also has experience with war reporting in Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Gök, who currently works as an editor at Mezopotamya Agency, says the cases against him and other journalists lack any legal basis:
“The government is trying to put pressure on those who attempt to do their job with charges such as ‘membership in a terrorist organization’ and ‘terrorist propaganda’. As a result of this pressure, hundreds of journalists were forced to flee the country, dozens are in prison, and many, like myself, are facing up to decades in prison.”
Saying that he was detained in 2018 after taking Kurkut’s photographs, Gök tells us that this investigation resulted in non-prosecution. However, the pressure on him did not end after that. The accusations of “membership in a terrorist organization” and “terrorist propaganda” on different grounds were turned into an indictment against him in 2020. In this lawsuit, Gök faces up to 20 years of imprisonment. On January 2022, another lawsuit was filed against him because of his social media posts which were not included in the indictment of the main lawsuit. This lawsuit in which a prison sentence of up to 7.5 years was requested for Gök, was merged with the main case.
Emphasizing that all accusations brought against him are related to his journalistic activities, Gök says: “They must have thought that this would not be enough for my conviction, so they brought forward a secret witness. According to his testimony, Kemal Kurkut was a member of a terrorist organization, and that day, I was there on the orders of the organization and I supposedly photographed the execution upon orders.”
Gök says that according to the logic in this fabrication, both the police and the governor who made a statement, must have acted on the orders of the organization. Of course, the outcome of such a trial is difficult to predict. Gök gives an example for this:
“Just think about it, we expected the prosecutor to present their opinion in the last hearing; yet the prosecutor did not present their opinion but filed a criminal complaint about two more of my news photos. One is the photograph of a father who defended his land during the Kobanê war and later died; the other is a photo I took during the Raqqa operation.”
Journalists in Turkey are often accused of terror-related crimes. The supposed criminal elements stated in these cases are often news texts or images, social media posts, or expressions that fall within the limits of the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 26 of the Turkish Constitution and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. For example, in 372 trials against journalists, activists and academics that have been monitored by the Media and Law Studies Association between June 2018 and July 2021, journalistic activities, such as publishing news stories, sharing photos and visuals, doing interviews and tweeting, were the basis of 74 % of the accusations. It is not surprising that journalist Gök has faced many terrorism-related charges based on the Anti- Terror Law (TMK) and the Turkish Penal Code (TCK): “Among the pieces of evidence are the photographs I took, notes for news stories, phone conversations made with news sources, books in my house, newspaper clippings that I kept for archival reasons and that were not under a recall order…”
These cases affect Gök’s personal and professional life:
“My family is worried. The fact that my journalistic archives are being confiscated in every other raid causes me to have nearly no digital material and archive at home, which are indispensable for journalism.”
So, what difference does it make when journalists receive support from their institutions or from colleagues while the judiciary is being used as a weapon?
“Without any self-interest, journalists act in the public interest and take all kinds of risks in doing so. When something happens to them, solidarity becomes the biggest pillar of support and gives them the strength to continue doing their profession. However, when they face charges on grounds of their news stories, and when they suffer solitude, their faith in the profession may be shaken and they may become resentful and withdraw from the community, whose right to information they have been fighting for. That’s when those in power are empowered in their belief that these cases are a way to achieve the desired results. After that, judicial pressure begins to be applied on every journalist. As a matter of fact, the current situation in our country is somewhat like that.”
“The impact upon me wasn’t big enough to keep me from doing my job”
Currently, there are four pending files on Gök at the Court of Cassation. The case that was filed after Kemal Kurkut’s death is still ongoing. Gök knows that if the courts act as if there was rule of law, he will not be punished based on the evidence cited against him.
“However, the lack of independence of the judiciary in Turkey is the main problem for journalists. For example, I was tortured while I was being detained in Siirt in 2009. I fainted because of the violence I was subjected to. They pulled my hair out. I presented all of these before the prosecutor.”
Although the torture Gök had endured was documented by the Institution of Forensic Medicine, he was arrested, charged with violence against a police officer and sentenced to pay a fine:
“After this and all the cases I faced since then, I have come to believe even more strongly that the judiciary is not independent. All this put me under pressure but the impact upon me was not big enough to keep me from doing my job.”