Free SpeechPress Freedom

The trials against Çiğdem Toker: Calling officials to account for the use of public resources

BARIŞ ALTINTAŞ AND GÖKÇER TAHİNCİOĞLU*

As a result of the recent increasing pressure in Turkey, allegations of corruption, particularly those against the government, have been among the areas in which journalists have been reluctant to report.

While private companies, and banks changed their balance sheets to show a positive mood in the economy, economy correspondents communicated “the positive mood” to the public. Many government agencies that publish data on the economy, such as the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK), have come under criticism for falsifying the figures.

Both in the period after 2016 and before, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has attributed many problems in the economy, some of which stemmed from corruption, to the “interest rate lobby” or “foreign powers”. However, after the elections held on March 31, 2019, in which the opposition parties won many metropolitan municipalities, major corruption allegations during the previous administrations of some municipalities especially in Istanbul and Ankara emerged. For example, government-affiliated organizations such as the Turkey Youth Foundation (TÜGVA) were accused of having a significant share in corruption within the municipalities and the government. Even though the access to such news was blocked, some journalists continued to pursue the public interest and, of course, paid the price.

Çiğdem Toker, one of the most competent journalists in investigations of corruption related to public resources in Turkey, has been working as an economics journalist for many weekly magazines and newspapers since 1990. After having worked in Hürriyet’s Ankara office as an economics correspondent for 15 years – where she had started in 1994, Toker became the first Ankara representative of Habertürk newspaper. A few months later, she resigned after she had realized that -in her own words- the newspaper’s “power does not reside in its freedom” as it was stated in their motto. She worked as a columnist and as the Ankara representative of the Akşam daily, before it was seized by the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (SDIF) due to the debts of the owner of the Çukurova Group. Toker, who had pointed out that the developments during the Gezi Protests in 2013 heralded the establishment of a state media, now says, “Indeed, that’s what happened”.

The experienced journalist, who worked in the Cumhuriyet newspaper for five years until the handover of the management of the foundation which owns the newspaper, now writes in Sözcü for more than three years.

Toker says she believes that judicial harassment intensified during the period between 2014 and 2018 and points out that she has faced six lawsuits for her news reports on corruption for which she had gathered the data from sources that are open to the public. Stating that this period has been particularly difficult, Toker says: “When I look back today, I can see better that in this period, irregularities and favoritism in public tenders were very common, and subtle and special ways have been found to transfer public resources to selected companies.”

However, the lawsuits filed against Toker are not limited to the period of the AKP government: “25 years ago, when I was a young reporter, large public banks, state-owned institutions, general managers, and business people also sued me because of my news stories.”

Among the lawsuits filed against Toker to date are a criminal case filed by Kadir Topbaş and several suits for damages, including a lawsuit filed by Ömer Faruk Kavurmacı for 1 million TRY; a lawsuit by Agrobay Greenhouse for 1.5 million TRY, a lawsuit by Senbay Mining Inc. for 1.5 million TRY, a lawsuit by PTT for 50 thousand TRY, and a lawsuit by T3 Foundation for 80 thousand TRY.

What does this judicial pressure mean for Toker?

“If you believe that you are right, you will have a peace of mind and self-confidence. However, this alone is not enough. The news which are the subject of the lawsuit and the support of the institution where your articles are published are very decisive. If you feel supported, the impact is low, even if there is pressure.”

Stressing the importance of professional solidarity, Toker explains that in these periods, professional organizations and members of the Parliament focusing on rights violations came to all the hearings: “So despite all the pressure, I never felt alone.”

Toker underlines that in the world of journalism, where only a few independent media institutions survive today, these lawsuits put greater pressure on journalists who continue their work as “freelancers”, that is, independently and without any institutional security.

“It is vital for journalists to have an institution which they work for and feel supported by. Without this assurance, facing a lawsuit constitutes a serious risk. It is a great pressure both financially and, if there is the possibility of a prison sentence, emotionally through the fear of imprisonment, especially considering the people whom the journalist is responsible for, such as family members. The opposite is much more comfortable. In other words, in a case where you believe you are right because it has been brought up only because of your journalistic work, it makes journalists feel very good to have their institutions stand behind them while facing the pressure of the government.”

Saying that she felt something different from pressure in her experience with the judiciary, the experienced journalist underlines that courts can always render a negative decision in an environment where the judiciary is not independent:

“The concrete facts are there. We are talking about an environment in which many talented, judge candidates who scored high in the exams are repeatedly rejected in interviews, and jurists who are known to be party-affiliated are appointed as judges.”

At the time when this article was written, the compensation lawsuit of 80,000 TRY brought up by the T3 Foundation against Toker continued. One of the two lawsuits filed against her with compensation requests of 1.5 million TRY was dismissed. “In terms of press freedom, the judge made a good decision. The case is on appeal,” says Toker and adds:

“In the other 1.5 million TRY compensation case, an unusual situation occurred (after the first dismissal). The plaintiff company did not attend the final hearing. The file was ceased. Nothing happened for three months. Consequently, the case was considered as never having been opened. The 50,000 TRY compensation lawsuit filed by the PTT was also dismissed. There was no other possibility because I had written the news based on the records of the Committee on Public Enterprises.”

So what are these companies actually aiming for when going after journalists?

Toker replies: “In the hearing, I also expressed before the judge that they were aiming to put on pressure. Companies tend to act like they are in power because they act together with those in power. They request immunity, just like the government. For this reason, they actually want to intimidate young colleagues and journalists working in similar fields with these particular lawsuits.”

*The statements of Çiğdem Toker in this article are taken from the documentary prepared by Gökçer Tahincioğlu and Özgür Zeren for Justice for Journalists Foundation (JFJ).