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Trial Monitoring Report: Despite the decrease in pre-trial detentions, journalism remains a crime in Turkey

The statistics obtained by the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) with respect to the freedom of expression trials monitored between June 15 and December 31, 2020, reveal a significant decrease in the rate of pre-trial detention decisions, however indicate that the charges against journalists remain unchanged.

Click to read our full report that includes the details of the monitored trials based on the 12 most common charges journalists face.

Between June 15 and December 31, 2020, MLSA monitored 195 hearings of 132 trials against journalists, academics and civil society professionals in 13 districts across Turkey. 

The report titled Journalism Remains a Crime asserts a significant decrease in the share of pre-trial detention decisions. 6% of the defendants were in pre-trial detention; this share was 49% during the previous monitoring period covering February 2019 and March 2020.

The number of imprisoned journalists fell from 95 to 66 during the same period. 

According to the data we obtained in 2018, 72% of the charges imputed to journalists were within the scope of the Anti-Terror Law (TMK); whereas this share had fallen to 61% in 2019 and until the first quarter of 2020. During the latest monitoring period, this share hit 46%. However, as in the last year, the courts handed down sentences as per the TMK in 78% of the cases that were closed during this period.

Reporting remains a terror crime

The share of trials in which news reports and publications constituted evidence was 79%; this figure resembles those from the previous periods. In 71 trials out of 74 (96%) where defendants faced charges within the scope of the TMK, the news reports penned by the defendants were presented as evidence for charges of membership of a terrorist organization or terrorist propaganda.

Problems concerning fair trial

Our monitors reported some factors that may affect the right to a fair trial in 34 hearings (17%). These included the denial of entry of journalists and observers into the courtroom; interruptions made by the judicial panel; not taking the statements of the defendants before reaching a verdict and not letting the defendants speak.

Who was on trial?

546 defendants stood trial in 132 trials. 93 of these defendants were tried alongside journalists and their occupational backgrounds could not be determined. 

277 of the 453 defendants whose trials were monitored were journalists. 91 of them were politicians or members of political parties who stood trial alongside journalists. 38 of the defendants were social media users that were prosecuted due to their comments regarding the national economy. 20 of the defendants were human rights defenders tried in the Büyükada and Gezi trials. Among the defendants, there were 11 lawyers, 5 students, 5 artists, 2 poets, 1 academic, 1 sergeant, 1 municipality worker and 1 photography artist.

In 6 of the multiple-defendant cases out of the 132 cases where 277 journalists were on trial, 194 others stood trial alongside them.

Charges

156 different charges were imputed in the 132 trials that were monitored. 

In 38 trials defendants were accused of terrorist propaganda; in 20 of membership of a terrorist organization; in 19 of attack on personal rights (insult or slander); in 15 of insulting the President and in 8 of inciting the public towards hatred and hostility.

In 80 of the 132 trials (61%) defendants’ news reports, publications or photos they published were presented as evidence for crime. In 55 of the trials (42%) their social media posts were included in the case file as evidence. In 104 of the 132 trials, (79%) in addition to news reports and publications, the evidence was directly related to journalistic activities such as the defendants’ talks with news sources and the editorial policy of the media outlet where they were employed. 

In 20 trials (15%) the phone calls of journalists with their news sources were presented as evidence for crime.

In 11 trials (8%) reporters were prosecuted due to their participation in press statements and demonstrations with the purpose of news coverage. In 6 of the trials the editorial policy of the media outlet that the journalist worked for was mentioned, whereas in 3 trials non-profit activities were presented as evidence for crime.

Lawyer Veysel Ok: “Within a larger framework, judiciary remains distant from the law”

Assessing the findings of the report, MLSA Co-Director lawyer Veysel Ok stated: “Our report reveals a significant decrease in the rate of pre-trial detention decisions. We have also observed this trend in the period that followed. An example would be the release of four journalists at their first hearing held on April 2, who reported on torture in Van and were arrested on October 9, 2020.”

Moreover, Ok noted that the trials monitored continue to violate existing legislation and standards on freedom of expression and press. 

Ok said: “According to our findings, where journalists are accused as per the Anti-Terror Law, the share of the evidence consisting of news reports, broadcasts and footage, in other words, journalistic activities is 96%. This means that occupational activities of journalists are presented as evidence for all sorts of charges, including membership of a terrorist organization.” 

Hence, for Ok, the decrease in the frequency of pre-trial detention decisions cannot be considered as an improvement in the judiciary, as journalists continue to stand trial in cases that shouldn’t have begun in the first place.

According to Ok, within a larger framework, the judiciary remains to be distant from the law and Turkey’s long-standing ignoring of European Court of Human Rights rulings on applications of Selahattin Demirtaş and Osman Kavala is proof of that.