Journalism fighting for survival before the elections – BIANET

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The Radio and Television Supreme Council and the Courts have been mobilized, the former imposing monetary fines, and the latter online censorship while Turkey is heading toward May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections. By Erol Önderoğlu, Bianet, May 3, 2023.

The BIA Media Monitoring Report, published on the occasion of May 3 World Press Freedom Day shows that the government retaining control over 80 percent of the national media, is now concentrating on a mission to silence the critical newspapers and televisions which have increasing popularity in recent years.

Many reports such as those criticizing the use of the Directorate of Religious Affairs and religion for their own interests, cases of neglect and irregularities before the earthquakes, claims that some people who are in power have links to criminal circles, statements that people who depended on breathing apparatus died in the earthquake region, or the announcement of the book « Dad » written by the imprisoned HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş were put forward for heavily punishing critical televisions.

The Report reflects criticism by many that the judiciary is being used as an instrument for political purposes in Turkey where nearly 200 journalists stood trial in three months, an access ban was imposed on 187 online reports and journalism contents, and which returned to the category of « countries where most journalists are arrested, » again after the attempted coup.

Eight of 195 suspects were acquitted, and two local journalists were convicted

The BIA Media Monitoring Report shows that at least 195 journalists or media representatives have stood trial in January, February, and March in the scope of the Turkish Criminal Code and Anti-Terror Law or Law No. 2911 on meetings and demonstrations. Nine journalists and five media institutions were standing trial with a claim for compensation in the same period. Again, the indictment prepared in June 2022 for 20 Kurdish media employees, 16 of whom have been arrested, with the accusation of « PKK membership » was still being examined by the Diyarbakır Heavy Penal Court as of April 1.

Within this period, the Court of Appeal upheld the prison sentences given to Müyesser Yıldız, İsmail Dükel, and Abdurrahman Gök, while the following journalists were acquitted: İsmail Saymaz, Fırat Fıstık, and Ozan Buz in the cases where they stood trial for ‘disseminating personal data’, Alican Uludağ and Nazlan Ertan in the cases where they stood trial for ‘causing those who have a duty in fighting terrorism to become a target; and Mustafa Sönmez, Ender İmrek, and Engin Korkmaz in the cases where they stood trial for « insulting the President.’ Journalists Merdan Yanardağ, Sedef Kabaş, Barış Pehlivan, and Ozan Alper Yurtoğlu were included in the report due to new cases opened against them for ‘insulting the President.’

In this period when the hearings in the trials related to the files of many journalists were postponed to later dates, and there were fewer verdicts of conviction, journalist Gençağa Karafazlı was given a two-year imprisonment for « violation of the right to privacy » which was postponed. Journalist Sinan Aygül was sentenced to 10 months of imprisonment for ‘disinformation’ for his post about the sexual harassment of a child, although he had later corrected the part stating that public employees were involved.

Widespread online censorship before the elections

Arbitrary access bans were imposed on the publications and posts of journalists who bring issues up on the agenda, and discuss issues such as the irregularities and corruption cases in the aftermath of the earthquakes before the May 14 elections, for instance, those of İsmail Saymaz, Barış Terkoğlu, Sefa Uyar, Bahadır Özgür, Saygı Öztürk and Murat Ağırel.

This year Criminal Courts of Peace or the Service Providers Union brought access bans to at least 187 online reports and journalism content bringing up or criticizing corruption, bribery, or favoritism cases until April 1.

The bandwidth throttling implemented on the internet service after the earthquake caused both journalists and earthquake victims to suffer.

The issues that the reports to which access bans were imposed included battering of children in Q’uran courses, cooperation of the government with the Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par), claimed links of some authorities or public employees to criminal organizations, that the contracts for the construction projects in five provinces affected by the earthquake were awarded to companies close to the government, that the « surplus » clothing sent for relief purposes after the earthquakes had been sold to a foreign company, and allegations of corruption, unjust practices, favoritism and criticism of the government.

Access to an ANKA News Agency report, three weeks after the earthquakes, informing that the construction projects planned in five provinces were awarded to companies supporting the government was banned nine days after it was published. The Ministry of Industry and Technology has not extended the license of the Deutsche Welle (DW) Turkish office, the broadcast of which was imposed an access ban in July 2022 at the request of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK).

Access to the website of the Freedom of Expression Association (İFÖD) publishing the announcements about the reports and the websites to which access bans are imposed in the scope of the EngelliWeb project was banned with the decision of the Rize Criminal Court of Peace. The Twitter account of the Kurdish weekly newspaper Xwebûn was reopened following the objection made. The website of Rudaw which imposed an access ban for « protecting the national security and public order, » was again made accessible after the objection was made.

RTÜK has trouble with Halk TV, TELE1, FOX TV & Habertürk

The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) laid their eyes on the TV channels like Halk TV, TELE1, FOX TV, and Habertürk and imposed 11 million 649 thousand and 870 lira (598 thousand US dollars) of fine and stopped the broadcast of the channels in six cases. The council also imposed 158 thousand and 339 lira (8,128 US dollars) of fine to the radio channels and stopped their broadcasts in three cases.

The total of the fines imposed on the television channels in the same period last year had been 20 million 868 thousand 514 lira, and that on the radios 11 thousand 517 lira.

73 journalists face « Erdoğan » imprisonment in eight years

At least 22 journalists and cartoonists (Levent Gültekin, Mustafa Sönmez, Barış Pehlivan, Ozan Alper Yurtoğlu, Merdan Yanardağ, Deniz Yücel, Hayko Bağdat, Julien Serignac, Gerard Biard, Laurent Sourisseau, « Alice », Sedef Kabaş, Rüstem Batum, Ender İmrek, Ahmet Sever, Ramazan Yurttapan, Haydar Ergül, Selçuk Uçar, Baransel Ağca, Engin Korkmaz, Erk Acarer and Mehmet Baransu) were involed in case files with the accusation of « insulting the President » in January-February-March of 2023.

New law cases were started for Merdan Yanardağ, Sedef Kabaş, Barış Pehlivan, and Ozan Alper Yurtoğlu, and Mustafa Sönmez, Ender İmrek, and Engin Korkmaz were acquitted in the law cases related to Article 299 of the Turkish Criminal Code in this period in which there have not been any new convictions.

Unfortunately, people continue to stand trial based on this article on « insulting the President » despite the Venice Commission Recommendation that the article should be abolished, and the Şorli judgment of the European Court of Human Rights dated October 2021. The number of journalists who have been convicted to imprisonment and monetary fines since August 2014 when Erdoğan was elected the President has reached 73.

Ministers, AKP deputies, and powerful people pursuing compensation

At least nine journalists and five media outlets, made headlines with lawsuits seeking a total of 900,000 lira in compensation in the first three months of the year, almost all of which were opened by those affiliated with the ruling party (Minister of Industry and Technology AKP member Mustafa Varank, Minister of Transportation Adil Karaismailoğlu, Deputy Minister of Health Sabahattin Aydın, AKP Bursa Deputy Mustafa Esgin, AKP Ankara Deputy Ali İhsan Arslan) and commercial organizations close to it (Turkuvaz Media Group Vice Chair Serhat Albayrak, Limak Holding, Demirören Media Group).

During the same period, local courts rejected a total of 210,000 liras compensation claims in three lawsuits filed by the daily Evrensel against Deputy Minister of Health Sabahattin Aydın, AKP Bursa Deputy Mustafa Esgin, and LİMAK Holding.

In the last three months, at least 10 journalists were detained. Some journalists working in Diyarbakır, where the earthquake caused damage, reported that they were obstructed by law enforcement officials for not having an official press card. Four journalists were detained in the first three days of the earthquake, on charges of « unauthorized filming, » « not having a turquoise press card, » or « inciting the public to hatred and enmity. »

In addition, bianet’s Kurdish service editor Aren Yıldırım was detained on charges of « being a member of an illegal organization, » Mezopotamya Agency (MA) owner Ferhat Çelik was detained on charges of « targeting people who are involved in the fight against terrorism, » journalist Fırat Bulut was detained on charges of « disinformation, » and BirGün reporter Asena Tunca was detained while covering the « We will not forgive, we will hold accountable » demonstration.

Last year, six journalists were detained during the same period. Two of these journalists were deprived of their freedom before the Diyarbakır Newroz celebrations, as the police heeded an anonymous tip-off that « there would be incidents on Newroz day. »

Five journalists were subjected to violence; Diyanet staff broke equipment

In the January-March period, at least two journalists were attacked, three of their equipment was destroyed, and at least seven were threatened. Arbitrary intervention and violence against journalists by some police and Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) officials working in the earthquake zone has attracted widespread criticism.

For example, in the Narlıca neighborhood of Hatay, the equipment belonging to three Greek freelance journalists was confiscated by Diyanet officials on the grounds that they had filmed a mass grave that had just been opened; then the equipment was returned after being broken. Ferit Demir, a reporter for Halk TV, was subjected to a kick attack by a police officer whose vest read « Ankara TEM » (anti-terror branch) while covering search and rescue operations in Malatya Battalgazi.

Last year, it was determined that six journalists and one media organization were subjected to violence. It was also noted that Güngör Arslan, the owner of Ses Kocaeli Newspaper, was murdered in his office after bringing allegations of corruption to the agenda.

An exhausted Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court, where Zühtü Arslan won the presidency against İrfan Fidan, who was supported by President Erdoğan, came to the agenda only with a decision regarding Hacı Boğatekin, the owner of the Adıyaman Gerger Fırat newspaper, during the period of January-March 2023.

To reduce the amount of the individual applications, the Constitutional Court, which sent a message to the local judiciary to « comply with our interpretation, » found a one-year prison sentence for « praising the guilty » for Boğatekin, who spent 109 days in prison in the same year due to the 2008 « Feto and Apo » article, which drew attention to the « Gülenist danger, » contrary to the constitution; and ruled for the payment of court costs of 9,900 liras to the journalist.

In the same period last year, the Constitutional Court gave two important decisions about the official advertisement ban on critical newspapers by the Press Advertisement Institution (BİK) and the censorship on online journalism, especially originating from decisions of Penal Judgeships of Peace (Birgün, Gazete Duvar, Artı Gerçek,, Cumhuriyet, Diken, and Tarımdanhaber), and ruled that the these outlets should be paid 8,100 liras each in an amount totaling 48,600 lira.

One decision from the ECtHR

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which gave one decision regarding journalists in the first three months of the year, ruled that the freedom of expression and security rights of journalist Abdullah Kılıç, who was tried for « FETÖ membership, » were violated and decided that Turkey should pay compensation of 13,375 euros (approximately 260,000 TL) to him.

In the same period last year, the ECtHR decided that the one-year detention of Die Welt journalist Deniz Yücel in Turkey constituted a clear violation of freedom of expression and ordered Turkey to pay 13,300 euros in compensation.

Fighting impunity, forced by the Constitutional Court…

The issue of the police violence that journalists Beyza Kural and Gökhan Biçici faced during social protests was brought to trial, forced by the Constitutional Court. However, the fact that AFP photojournalist Bülent Kılıç and journalist Sibel Hürtaş, whose complaints of violence were dismissed, were prosecuted for « resisting the police » reflects a serious contradiction and a clear lack of willpower in the « fight against impunity. »

The case of Yavuz Selim Demirağ, a columnist for the Yeniçağ newspaper, who was heavily attacked outside his home in Ankara because he criticized the People’s Alliance during the 2019 elections, is another clear example of this lack of will. The « ordinary » procedure observed in cases such as Uğur Mumcu, which wounded the public conscience, also undermines trust in the search for justice. The truth is that the political power’s will to reach the truth decreases as the political nature of the case files escalates.

In cases concerning individuals not close to the government, the trials can proceed more quickly: Emrah Topal, who intervened in the tense argument between the Democratic Party Ordu Deputy Cemal Enginyurt and journalist Latif Şimşek on August 6, 2022, and punched the journalist, was sentenced to 11 months.

Ten layoffs or resignations in three months

At least 10 journalists, columnists or media representatives were either laid off or forced to quit due to disagreements arising from the publishing policy of the media organization during the period of January-March. During this period, when there were six instances of employees parting ways only at Halk TV, other media outlets that parted ways with their employees included Sözcü, Odatv, CNN Türk and Akit.

In the same period last year, a total of five journalists, including Özlem Gürses and Emin Çapa from Halk TV, either had to resign or were fired from their jobs. 

By Erol Önderoğlu, Bianet, May 3, 2023.

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