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The trials of journalists: A state of ‘as if’

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Barış Altıntaş

Whether it’s the judges’ movements, the attitude of suspects, the statements of lawyers, the announcement of indictments, the tone of the ushers’ voices and, of course, the verdicts, there is a sense of theatrical phoniness in many trials — it’s as if everyone knows the allegations are false. In the trials of journalists, the whole courthouse plays an “as if” game.

Since the July 15, 2016, coup attempt, I have followed any number of trials. I had never covered trials as a journalist before; in fact, in my post in the newsroom, I didn’t even have an opportunity to go cover stories in recent years because of editorial tasks.

But during this period, I wasn’t covering the trials for print newspapers. I didn’t have a “yellow press card” for the first time in seven years. That official card was usually required to enter hearings for well-known people, meaning it attracted a lot of interest from journalists. I resented newspaper journalists and reporters from international news agencies who never followed a hearing but just attended high-profile cases. In time, I found a way to enter the hearings thanks to tips from journalist colleagues who had worked at courthouses for a long time, as well as an “international press card” provided by the Journalist Union of Turkey (TGS). Nevertheless, I saw that many journalists could not enter the hearings since they did not possess the government’s official press card.

I reckon that the more trials you follow in the wake of the July 15 coup attempt, the more you understand that the judiciary is a dark game. Whether it was the judges’ movements, the attitude of suspects, the statements of lawyers, the announcement of indictments, the tone of the ushers’ voices and, of course, the verdicts, there was a sense of theatrical phoniness in many trials — it was as if everyone knew the allegations were false. In the trials of journalists, the whole courthouse plays an “as if” game.

Of course, one can’t figure this out immediately. In the wake of the coup attempt, I and everyone else — even the pessimists — had a feeling that the period of terrible oppression would slowly end and that this thick air would disperse. Even at the outset, there was still a hope that this dystopia would gradually ease off. The first trials, however, were harbingers that suggested this would not happen in the judiciary or the government.

“Sorry, just to make it clear”

One of these first trials was a case into four journalists and two others, including Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and former Zaman art director Fevzi Yazıcı. On trial for “attempting to change the constitutional order,” the suspects were eventually sentenced to aggravated life in prison in February 2018.

In the first hearing, lawyers demanded the release of their clients, with the lawyer for Mrs. Ilıcak seeking her immediate release due to her old age.

When the chief judge of the panel, Kemal Selçuk Yalçın, squinted and said, “I do not think that Mrs. Nazlı is that old,” a chuckle rose from the hall, since the majority thought this was a joke — even a bit of flirtation that showed that common sense could reign at the end of these unreasonable cases. But looking at the eyes of the judge, I didn’t think so. Forget about breaking the ice, he was declaring in the first hearing that no one would be released.

And he did not hide his stance all through the trial. For example, when one of the defense lawyers described July 15 as an event in which “Nearly 300 people died on that bridge,” the judge asked with exaggerated politeness:

“Sir, sorry, I couldn’t get that: Did those people die in a traffic accident?”

When the lawyer corrected himself to say “they were martyred,” the judge highlighted his message, using the same frightening politeness to say, “Please don’t let me be misunderstood, I was just trying to clarify.”

It was like he had a personal vendetta against the suspects and truly believed in the “spirit of the indictment,” even though he was not convinced of the crimes in the indictment, which consisted merely of tweets, articles and statements on television.

Later on, an appeals court upheld the aggravated life sentences.

Staying in jail despite being released

These “man-eating” verdicts could, of course, not be left to the mercy of judges who did not obey the criteria for a fair trial. The trial known to the public as the “Atila Taş case” — after a popular music singer who was one of the defendants — actually consisted of 24 journalists who were facing charges for “being the media leg of FETÖ.” Many people predicted that, devoid of evidence, the prosecutor’s crazy allegations would not hold water at a court of serious crimes and that all the suspects would be released at the first hearing.

Actually, this was what happened: In the first hearing on March 31, 2017, the court ordered the release of 21 of the 24 suspects. None of the suspects, however, were released from prison that night; instead, the judges who issued the verdict were removed from their posts. The next day, journalists who had stood trial on similar allegations before being released that week in the southern province of Antalya were also re-arrested. The prosecutor objected to the release decision and launched new probes into some of the suspects, demanding heavier sentences. Around a year later, the court sentenced all but three of the suspects to between six and seven years for “membership in an illegal organization.”

Following the initial ruling to release the defendants, I sent a Facebook message to one of the suspects, saying “get well soon.” Now, I wonder if this suspect will one day relive this cursed night because of me when he gets out of prison years down the road and finally signs into Facebook again.

Defense strategies

While standing trial in Turkey, what you represent really matters. For example, the Kemalist wind that began to blow in the court hall during a FETÖ trial into the owner of Sözcü newspaper and three employees eased the attitude of the judge — who had started off proceedings by berating an arrested reporter, saying, “This is not the place to say hello to family members.” (The reporter might have also helped himself by saying he had been where he needed to be, “with my president,” on the night of the coup attempt.)

Suspect journalists in the FETÖ cases defended themselves, trying to demonstrate how they supported the government in their articles or tweets. Maybe they were right; they wanted to be released from prison. One suspect in a case penned a letter to the president, another gushed over the government and others said they kept working at the now-closed newspaper simply because of their economic situation. However, there were many journalists who preferred to defend themselves without contributing to this theater play. There was, for instance, the defense of Ahmet Turan Alkan — a person I don’t generally like due to his ideological approach — following the prosecutor’s opinion:

“There are all these defenses as if someone grabbed these people by the arm and said, ‘You look like a writer…’ It was my newspaper and I wrote there. I never took orders from anyone.”

The determined and self-confident tone of his voice was reminiscent of the kind we saw in the defenses of Ahmet Altan and Ahmet Şık. I was astonished, and I felt great respect.

And we experienced just the opposite. For instance, we knew the human side of İnan Kıraç from his published remarks on the story of his daughter and the illness of his wife, but he squandered all his credit when he testified against Cumhuriyet columnists who were accused of acting for the benefit of “FETÖ” and other organizations. While saying all those things at the hearing, how could he look into the faces of journalists who would be sent back to the prison soon after?

We are truly living through a period that will determine what people leave to their grandchildren.

Stooges, yes men, those make U-turns all of a sudden, those non-judicial people who can suddenly devour their decades-old colleagues without a second thought…

The legacy of this era will truly be those who prefer to leave a legacy in the face of humanity’s surprising ability to kowtow.

This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.