Ghosts Roaming Courthouse Corridors

In Turkey journalists are charged with terrorism simply on the basis of their news stories, articles and comments. Developments in legal cases influenced by the government have increasingly turned doubts about the independence and impartiality of the judiciary into deep concern.

It is now a self-fulfilling prophecy that, in trials against journalists, the government steers every stage from detention operations to prosecutors’ interrogations, from arrest warrants to indictments, from prison sentences to Constitutional Court rulings on rights violations. Each new detention, arrest, indictment and decision may cause some doubt, but no one has any doubt about the answers to the real questions. This steering began not behind closed doors but out in the open.

President Tayyip Erdoğan personally stepped in for journalists to stand trial. When Cumhuriyet Newspaper’s former editor-in-chief Can Dündar published a news story about the National Intelligence Organization’s (MİT) trucks carrying guns to Northern Syria, Erdoğan said, “The person who committed this crime will pay a heavy price.” From that moment on, it was a matter of time before the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office initiated an investigation against Dündar. Erdoğan did not only target Dündar, but personally filed a criminal complaint against him. He requested that Dündar be charged with “espionage” and ”attempting to overthrow the government. The Constitutional Court ruled that the rights of Can Dündar, who was detained for 3 months alongside Erdem Gül, the Ankara representative of Cumhuriyet Newspaper, were violated. But this did not prompt the government to back off from the file. Instead President Erdoğan became directly involved in the case via his lawyer Ahmet Özel. He followed the proceedings closely until the end.

Meanwhile, Istanbul’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor İrfan Fidan, who had Dündar and Gül arrested, was appointed Istanbul Chief Prosecutor.

From Cumhuriyet Trial to the Pinnacle of the Judiciary

Istanbul Deputy Chief Public Prosecutor Mehmet Ekinci, who requested lengthy prison sentences for severe charges against journalists in the trial against Cumhuriyet Newspaper -one of Turkey’s oldest dissident media outlets- was appointed by President Tayyip Erdoğan as a member of Council of Judges and Prosecutors chaired by the Minister of Justice. Another prosecutor who penned the indictment, Yasemin Baba was appointed as Deputy Chief Public Prosecutor of Erzurum. President of the panel of judges Abdurrahman Orkun Dağ, who handed down prison sentences to the journalists, was appointed to Court of Cassation by the Council of Judges and Prosecutors. Dağ’s ascent did not stop there. Dağ later became the president of Court of Cassation’s 9th Criminal Chamber, which carried out the trials of judges charged with membership to FETÖ. As a result of civil and criminal lawsuits against the newspaper, the management of Cumhuriyet Newspaper changed hands.

Judges Standing Trial for Their Verdicts

Some judges were not “rewarded” but “punished” for their rulings in the files steered by the government. Judges who reached a verdict of acquittal or non-prosecution not appreciated by the government were suspended or exiled to another city by a resolution of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors headed by the Minister of Justice. While some of the judges in charge of the Cumhuriyet Newspaper file quickly advanced in their careers, the judge Hamit İçdemir, who voted against the prison sentences, was sent off to Hatay.

Travails of a Panel of Judges

Members of the Istanbul 25th High Criminal Court which ordered the release of 21 journalists under the “FETÖ Media Structure” trial fared the worst. The Council of Judges and Prosecutors suspended the president of the panel of judges İbrahim Lorasdağı, judges Barış Cömert and Necla Yeşilyurt and prosecutor Göksel Turan. Moreover, a FETÖ investigation was initiated against the judges and prosecutor. The Inspection Board of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors concluded that the judges and prosecutor had no ties to FETÖ. The order for their suspension was repealed. However, the judges were “exiled” to distant provinces and districts. Meanwhile, the journalists whom they had released had already been arrested. Such interference was not limited to Istanbul 25th High Criminal Court. From that point on, no court ever again ordered the release of all journalists in cases with multiple defendants.

A Single Judge, Dozens of Prison Sentences

Sözcü Newspaper journalists standing trial were sentenced from two years, one month to three years, six months, fifteen days in prison. The verdict was announced by president of the panel of judges, Akın Gürlek. Akın Gürlek had previously sentenced Oğuz Güven, the editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet Newspaper’s website to prison for a tweet on the newspaper’s Twitter account. At the “FETÖ Media Structure” trial, he had issued arrest warrants for Atilla Taş and Murat Aksoy in his capacity as president of İstanbul 2. Criminal Court of Peace. As president of İstanbul 4. Criminal Court of Peace, he ruled for a ban of access to the web articles about the book titled “Mahrem” (Confidential) penned by Oda TV’s News Manager Barış Terkoğlu and Editor-in-Chief Barış Pehlivan. Akın Gürlek sentenced Canan Coşkun, ex-correspondent of Cumhuriyet Newspaper, to 2 years 3 months in prison for the events that transpired during the interrogation at the prosecutor’s office of the lawyers of Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça who were dismissed from their jobs as public sector teachers by an executive decree during the State of Emergency. Gürlek also sentenced Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) President of the Istanbul Province, Canan Kaftancıoğlu to 9 years, 8 months, 20 days in prison on 5 different charges. In his capacity as the president of Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court, Akın Gürlek sentenced Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) former Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş to 4 years, 8 months and former HDP Ankara MP Sırrı Süreyya Önder to 3 years, 6 months in prison. A judge who ordered the release of Selçuk Kozağaçlı, Chairman of Contemporary Lawyers Association, and 16 other lawyers was appointed to another court; he was replaced by Akın Gürlek who handed down lengthy prison sentences to the 17 lawyers.

High Courts not That High

During these years, Turkey also witnessed how the rulings of the highest instances of the judiciary were not heeded. Local courts waited for a statement from the government before implementing a verdict announced by the high courts.

When the Constitutional Court ruled that their rights had been violated, Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay had to be released. The law on paper required this. However, the courts that tried Alpay and Altan resisted the Constitutional Court’s verdict and did not release the two writers. Because, Government Spokesperson Bekir Bozdağ described the Constitutional Court’s decision as “usurpation of authority by the judiciary”.

The writers were released months later. But now, the way to resist the decisions of the high courts was wide open. The lawlessness of resisting Supreme Court decisions had been justified when President Erdoğan said “I do not accept or respect it” as regards Constitutional Court’s verdict to release Can Dündar and Erdem Gül.

The long prison sentences to Cumhuriyet Newspaper’s writers, illustrators and executives were overruled by the Court of Cassation, which ruled that the charges were ungrounded and the defendants had simply acted as journalists. However, the first-instance court insisted on its ruling and declared as a terrorist offense what the highest criminal court had described as “journalism”.

Meanwhile, Ahmet Altan, who was tried under the “FETÖ Media Main Trial”, was sentenced to 10 years, 6 months instead of life imprisonment by the court of first instance, after the Court of Cassation ruled to overrule its decision. Altan was released after nearly 4 years of imprisonment. However, within a week, he was arrested again. The court that re-arrested Altan was the same court that resisted the decision of the Court of Cassation at the Cumhuriyet Newspaper trial.

For many years, the political power has requested that dissident journalists be branded as “terrorists” and critical journalism as “terrorist activity”, so that they may gradually disappear. Every day, dozens of journalists stand trial before prosecutors or judges in Turkish courthouses as “suspects” or “defendants” owing to their news stories, comments, and social media posts.

While prosecutors don’t even feel the need to base their claims on real, legal and concrete evidence, journalists are obliged to prove that what they do is journalism. However, in law, the burden of proof lies not with the defendant but the prosecution.

The judiciary system is used like a weapon to silence journalists. The influence of the government on the files which the whole world is paying attention to is gradually increasing along with its shadow over the courthouses. The ghosts that roam the corridors of courthouses whisper to judges’ ears what verdict they should reach.

That’s why journalism figures among “the most hazardous occupations” in Turkey, whose Constitution reads “The press is free, and cannot be censored.”