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In late summer 2019, Sinan Aygül, a journalist from Bitlis, prepared a news story that would eventually result in his imprisonment, albeit just for one day.
Aygül started his journalism career in Istanbul in 2007 and since then has contributed to many national and local publications. He has been living in Bitlis since 2010. Aygül, who works as editor-in-chief of the Bitlis News website and manager of some local publications, is also the Bitlis correspondent of Gazete Duvar. On top of all that, he is a journalist, who is familiar with SLAPPs and judicial harassment. To date, he has faced 133 investigations, mostly because of his news stories.
“During my investigation into the intel I received on July 12, 2019 about the sexual abuse of a child in Tatvan, I accessed security camera footage from a workplace. In the footage, an old man was molesting a girl in the middle of the street. I sent the pictures via WhatsApp to the then chief of police of the Tatvan District and asked if anything had been done about this,” recounts Aygül.
However, instead of answering the question, the chief of police replied that “the person is not from here”. Shortly after this correspondence, Aygül’s phone rang. The caller was another journalist from Bitlis; he suggested not reporting about the matter.
In other words, all the conditions to turn this into a news story were given.
“I felt suspicious about the situation, researched it, and learned that the child had complained and the perpetrator had not been caught. I came to the conclusion that the case would be kept under wraps with the phrase ‘the person is not from here.’ I published the footage – with the girl’s face blurred – with my news story on July 12.”
In the following days, this news, which was published by Bitlis News, appeared in various other news outlets, websites, TV channels, and newspapers; it resonated in all national media. While the news spread, judicial authorities in Bitlis expanded the investigation. “One day later, the perpetrator was caught in Denizli and arrested on charges of ‘qualified sexual abuse of children.’”
However, Aygül learned that shortly after the news was published, the Tatvan Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation against him with the allegation of “violating the confidentiality of an investigation.” The investigation against Aygül did not come as a surprise to journalists covering violence against children and women across Turkey. In another example, an investigation was launched against journalist Baransel Ağca, who published the autopsy report of Yeldana Kaharman, who was found suspiciously dead at her home in Elazığ in 2021. The journalist was forced to leave Turkey due to persistent pressure.
There have been a number of developments in this regard in Turkey over the same period. With a Presidential Decree issued in March 2021, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention.
In Turkey, women’s rights organizations criticize the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government for producing policies that support impunity for crimes against women and children. In line with the 4th Judicial Package, which came into force in July 2021, for instance, “concrete evidence” is required for a catalogue of crimes included in the Code of Criminal Procedure, such as sexual abuse, willful murder, and torture. Women’s organizations say the requirement of concrete evidence in crimes such as sexual abuse, rape, and torture will make it impossible to arrest perpetrators of sexual crimes against women or children.
According to the 2019 judicial statistics published by the Ministry of Justice, 49 057 cases were filed in Turkey under “crimes against sexual inviolability.” Among these, 22 689 are crimes of sexual abuse against children.
Against this background, Aygül describes what happened after the news he wrote:
“The police were instructed to take my statement. Normally they should have called me and invited me to the police station and then taken my statement. However, instead of doing that, they raided my house at around 10:30 p.m., which is very unconventional. I was not home. My downstairs neighbor is also a journalist, and my colleague. They called me on his phone and told me to come home. They said that they would not let my friend go until I got home. I went home, I was detained and brought to the police station, and my statement was taken at night. In a very short time, the indictment was prepared.”
In the first hearing of the case at the Tatvan 2nd Criminal Court of First Instance, Aygül was sentenced to 10 months in prison for the charges against him. In the appeal process, Aygül’s 10-month sentence was commuted to 5 months.
With the finalization of the verdict against him, he was imprisoned for a previous sentence resulting from a dispute he had with the former Mayor of Tatvan, Fettah Aksoy, on the grounds of a news article. As the probation period of this sentence had not yet expired, it was considered a repeated offense and he was imprisoned:
“Since the sentence was below a certain limit, it was supposed to be executed first in an open prison and then on probation. I was released after one day of imprisonment and completed the sentence under judicial control measures by signing two days a week during five months on probation. The execution of the final verdict is over, but the legal remedies have not been exhausted yet. Our application to the Constitutional Court is still pending. If the Constitutional Court does not decide to reverse the verdict, we will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).”
Aygül says that, after this point, he has given up investigating the molester’s identity.
“I found out that he was the father of a soldier and was temporarily in Bitlis. However, I don’t know which soldier’s father he is, how influential this soldier is and whether this had a negative impact on this case. But at that time I was already targeted. I had made a series of corruption stories about ruling party politicians, and I was constantly being threatened because of these.”
What happened to the person in the footage after the journalist was imprisoned, even if it was for one day?
“The perpetrator was detained and arrested after the news,” says Aygün. “A lawsuit was filed against him under the allegation of ‘qualified sexual abuse of a chield’. He stayed in prison for about seven months. Interestingly, however, the child and her family, who initially complained, later retracted their statements and dropped the charges. Nevertheless, the court imposed a prison sentence of approximately 3.5 years. An appeal has been filed against the verdict, and is still pending.”
Aygül says that after the incident, the child in the footage suffered mental health problems for a long time and could not leave the house on her own.
“After I made the news, the girl and her family reached out to me and thanked me. It was clear that if there had been no news, the perpetrator would not have been caught. But why did they withdraw their complaint afterward? I didn’t get that. Maybe they were threatened, maybe they were persuaded in some other way. The family didn’t even want to talk about it.”
“Fighting non-state forces is a very different issue”
Aygül says that the majority of the 133 investigations opened against him so far have been dismissed with a decision of non-prosecution. “More than 30 cases have been opened. I have been sentenced in most of them. I have cases on appeal, I also have cases at the Court of Cassation. I have pending files at Criminal Courts of First Instance and High Criminal Courts. Apart from the criminal cases, I also have many civil lawsuits against me that were filed for compensation. Some rulings against me have been finalized. Among these finalized decisions are sentences I received for allegedly making propaganda in the news I covered, and also verdicts given for allegedly insulting or threatening others in my articles.”
Aygül also states that he was exposed to attacks and threats due to his news stories about corruption. Aygül, who was attacked by four people in Bitlis for one of his news stories, tells us that he was sentenced to 4 months and 20 days in prison for “threatening with a gun” the attackers, which he resisted. “Actually, it was all about the news story, but I was sentenced because I had to defend myself.”
According to Aygül, in parallel to the reflexes of the judiciary, complaints from company owners and rent-seekers can also play a role in addressing news coverage of harassment, rights violations, torture, and corruption.
Saying “There is a limit to the interventions from the state, but fighting non-state forces is a quite different issue”, Aygül tells that there are no other journalists in Bitlis who have problems with the judiciary and that he feels alone in the city as a journalist who is concerned about this issue. “In other words, cases of rights violations, corruption, or sexual abuse can only come to light if I make the news.”
So, how do his relationship with the judiciary and the successive cases filed against him impact Aygül’s journalism?
Stating that these cases will never intimidate him, Aygül answers this question as follows:
“Instead of slowing me down, it makes me faster; it scares me but it helps overcome my fears; it never stops me.”