Operation against Sözcü Newspaper: Terror crime "uncovered" in word search game

The prosecutor has charged Sözcü Newspaper of “aiding and abetting FETÖ terrorist organization” and filed a lawsuit at a high criminal court, based entirely on news articles published in the newspaper. Furthermore, most of the articles cited as evidence had not been subjected to any charge or investigation when they had first been published.
One such piece of evidence was a “word search game…”

Since its foundation in 2007, Sözcü Newspaper has had a Kemalist editorial line and opposed the policies of the AKP government to a certain extent. Sözcü Newspaper immediately brings to mind very long headlines written in huge fonts, extending across 2 or 3 lines. A few years after its foundation, in 2014, it became the second top selling newspaper, seconded only by Zaman, a media outlet of the Gülen Sect, which had not yet been shuttered. At the time, an investigation of corruption extending to the AKP government was the hottest topic in Turkey, and Sözcü covered the investigation in a rather effective manner. Although Sözcü was not yet a direct target of Erdoğan back then, it came under heavy attack from the writers and commentators of newspapers and channels close to Erdoğan’s party, such as Sabah, Takvim and A Haber.

On January 1, 2016, Sözcü Newspaper published a word search on its cover, titled “Your horoscope for 2016”. Above the word search it wrote, “The first three names you make out in the word search will remain in your life throughout the New Year.”

The reader was asked to mark certain words among a soup of letters in the puzzle. The words “DIE” (“ÖL” in Turkish) and “RECEP” were coincidentally placed side by side in the word search, and this had immediately grabbed the attention of pro-government media outlets: Akşam, Sabah, Takvim and Yeni Akit newspapers launched a heavy attack against Sözcü on that day and the next.

On January 2, 2016, Küçükçekmece Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office imitated an investigation against the newspaper on charges of insulting the President via “a word search game”, inciting to commit a crime and instigating an attack. Upon the completion of the investigation, Enver Kaya, the managing editor of the newspaper, was charged with “insulting the President”. At the end of the trial held at Küçükçekmece 2. Criminal Court of First Instance, Kaya was sentenced to 2 years, 2 months and 7 days in prison on December 15, 2016. The Court of Appeal upheld the verdict on March 17, 2017.

When Erdoğan disappeared for 6 days…

On July 15, 2016 at 16:25, an article titled “Sözcü has found Erdoğan” was published on Sözcü newspaper’s website. The newspaper’s İzmir correspondent Gökmen Ulu signed the article. Its language resembled the articles in the tabloid press about celebrities spotted in nightclubs. The article touched upon the villa overlooking the Marmaris Bay where Erdoğan was staying, whether Erdoğan had paid for his holiday or not, and the security measures taken to protect him. Since Erdoğan had not appeared before cameras after the NATO summit in Warsaw on July 9, Gökmen Ulu had considered that his whereabouts had news value.

Gökmen Ulu as well as Mediha Olgun, the managing editor of the newspaper’s website, and Yonca Yücekaleli, the accounting manager were detained on May 19, 2017 on charges of “aiding and abetting FETÖ”. The article titled “Sözcü has found Erdoğan” forming the basis of the accusation had been published 10 months ago, and until then the defendants had not been summoned to the prosecutor’s office to give a statement. Following the detention order, Gökmen Ulu and Mediha Olgun were arrested on May 26, 2017 and placed in Silivri Prison. An arrest warrant was issued for Burak Akbay, the owner of the newspaper.

Journalist witnesses gathered evidence

Asım Ekren, a prosecutor with the Press Crimes Investigation Bureau of Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office, completed the investigation on September 26, 2017 and drafted the indictment. The evidence cited in the indictment consisted of the word search game dated January 1, 2016, which had already been prosecuted, Gökmen Ulu’s news article, an article published in Yeni Şafak by Fehmi Koru under the pseudonym Taha Kıvanç claiming that Burak Akbay had once stayed in a house belonging to the Gülen Sect in Switzerland, and witness statements from pro-government journalists such as Cem Küçük, Ersoy Dede, Fuat Uğur, Fehmi Koru and Hüseyin Gülerce. Aside from the word search and Ulu’s article, the prosecutor was aided by journalists witnesses who showed him some of Sözcü’s headlines to include in the indictment as evidence.

Prosecutor Asım Ekren’s indictment began with the first page featuring the word search. The prosecutor argued that his inclusion of the word search in this indictment did not represent double jeopardy. Accordingly, the word search was not evidence in this case, but “something” linked to the charges listed in the indictment.

It was stated that the file of the investigation previously initiated by Küçükçekmece Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office about the word search had been separated and dispatched to Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office after the coup attempt, on August 8, 2016, with a decision of rejection of venue.

News published 3 years ago

The indictment listed as evidence news articles that had not been subjected to any investigation at the time of their publication. Likewise, tweets published on December 19 and 20, 2013 after the December 17-25, 2013 corruption and bribery investigation involving 3 AKP ministers and their sons were added to the file.

The “journalist” witnesses of the prosecutor

According to the indictment, the prosecutor summoned the witness Ersoy Dede to give a statement on August 19, 2016, Fehmi Koru and Cem Küçük on August 22, 2016, Hüseyin Gülerce on June 14, 2017, and Fuat Uğur on August 11, 2017.

Of these witnesses, Cem Küçük gave statements not only against Sözcü newspaper, but also against Cumhuriyet newspaper on August 22, 2016. The indictment also indicated that Küçük provided yet another statement to the prosecutor on August 9, 2017. Küçük, in this second statement, cited examples from Sözcü Newspaper’s issues dated May 30, 2015 and March 28, 2014. The headline on May 30, 2015 read “How can the state provide arms to terrorists? That’s what real treason is”, in reference to an article published on Cumhuriyet Newspaper the day before, concerning the military equipment discovered on National Intelligence Organization trucks en route to Northern Syria. The headline on March 28, 2014 read “Tayyip rants and raves, but takes no precaution against wiretapping: Enough is enough”, with reference to a leaked conversation about Syria between top state officials such as Ahmet Davutoğlu, Hakan Fidan, Feridun Sinirlioğlu and Yaşar Güler. The prosecutor duly included these issues presented by Küçük in his indictment.

Who is Cem Küçük?

Küçük, a key witness of the prosecution in the operation against Sözcü and Cumhuriyet Newspapers, stepped into journalism at Yeni Şafak newspaper in 2012. Küçük left Yeni Şafak in April 2015 and started to work for Star Newspaper. He was fired in April 2016. He currently writes for Türkiye Newspaper. The web site Oda TV put forth various claims about Küçük, suggesting that he had close to the Fethullah Gülen Sect in the past. Although these claims were not supported with concrete evidence, Küçük had indeed overtly praised Fethullah Gülen in his past articles. After AKP and the Gülen Sect came to loggerheads, he sided with the former.

Gülerce, writer of a Gülen hagiography

One such journalist witness is Hüseyin Gülerce. Gülerce had testified on December 20, 2016 under the scope of the Cumhuriyet Newspaper investigation, before giving his statement under the Sözcü Newspaper investigation. On that day, Gülerce said the following:

“When I resigned from the daily Zaman, I used the phrase ‘Zaman has now become another Sözcü’. Because, like Sözcü, Zaman came to display fierce animosity towards Erdoğan. In addition, I think that it would be useful to ask for information from Fehmi Koru on the matter. Because Fehmi Koru had written that in the USA, Burak Akbay, the owner of Sözcü, had established links to Fethullah Gülen. (…) I also think that the news article stating that Erdoğan was in Marmaris on July 15 could only have been penned by people who knew about the coup beforehand. That article directly targeted Erdoğan.”

As such, Gülerce had presented in his statement possible grounds for the arrest of Gökmen Ulu, even before the latter had been arrested.

Who is Hüseyin Gülerce?

Hüseyin Gülerce was a figure very close to the Fethullah Gülen sect for many years. From 1989 onwards, he worked as a writer and even editor-in-chief of Zaman Newspaper. After the December 17/25, 2013 corruption and bribery investigation, he left Zaman Newspaper and joined the pro-government Star. Gülerce wrote a book called “The Smiling Face of Islam” published in 2003. Here is an excerpt from its blurb:

“An opinion leader with a broad horizon Mr. Gülen saw where the world was headed before anyone else did. He stated, way before all of us, that in a globalizing world, Muslims should accept everyone in their current position and not interfere with their lifestyles, so as not to lose out in the competition of humanity and civilization. And before all of us, he put forth a perspective that emphasized the essence rather than the form. Fethullah Gülen hates terror, fighting and hostility, and adores love and friendship. True to his name, he is the smiling face of Islam [“Gülen” means “He who smiles” in Turkish -tn]. It is distinguished individuals such as Gülen, a stoic pilgrim on ‘the path of Mevlana and Yunus’, the contemporary form of Anatolian Islam, who will put a smile on our faces.”

From 1993 onwards, Gülerce had also appeared on the pro-Gülen Samanyolu TV as news commentator right after the main news bulletin. Gülerce, in his statement as witness to the prosecutor’s office within the scope of the Cumhuriyet Newspaper investigation, stated “After my first program on Samanyolu TV, Gülen appreciated my style and said ‘His is the face that should represent us”’. Gülerce also confessed that, while he worked for Zaman, they would fax the draft newspaper to Fethullah Gülen in the United States to get his approval before sending it to the print. Gülerce indicated that he was enlightened by the speeches of Mustafa Yeşil, the President of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, whose honorary president was Fethullah Gülen. According to Gülerce, in one such speech, Yeşil had pointed to his arm and said, ‘The most important arm to get control of is the armed forces’”.

They retracted their “witness statements”

The indictment against Sözcü Newspaper was accepted by Istanbul 37th High Criminal Court. The president of the panel of judges was Erdoğan Şimşek. The first hearing was held on November 7 and 8, 2017 at the Istanbul Courthouse in Çağlayan. On the first day of the trial, the defendants and lawyers took the floor. On the second day, the public prosecutor’s witnesses Cem Küçük, Hüseyin Gülerce, Ersoy Dede and Fuat Uğur testified before the court.

First Cem Küçük was invited to the witness box. Before Küçük took the oath, the president Erdoğan Şimşek stated “Your testimony may be based on what you saw, heard or felt”. In fact a testimony must rest on knowledge and experience based on the five senses. On that day, no defense lawyer dared to ask the president how a testimony could be based on feelings. Küçük had claimed at the prosecutor’s office that the objectives of Sözcü Newspaper’s editorial policy were almost identical with those of media outlets with close ties to FETÖ/PDY; at the witness box, however, he said “As a miner and a believer in God, I cannot say that Sözcü Newspaper collaborated with FETÖ.”

After Cem Küçük, it was Fuat Uğur’s turn: a contributor to Türkiye Newspaper. Uğur argued that Sözcü was not pro-FETÖ, but that their editorial line was in parallel with FETÖ’s tactics. Uğur bid farewell to Sözcü newspaper columnists Yılmaz Özdil and Uğur Dündar as he left the courtroom.

After Fuat Uğur, Ersoy Dede came to the witness box. Dede stated it was Fehmi Koru who had alleged that the defendant Burak Akbay had been trained in FETÖ’s houses, and that he had believed in Koru because he was a trustworthy individual.

After Ersoy Dede, it was the turn of yet another witness of the prosecutor’s office, Hüseyin Gülerce. Gülerce connected to the courtroom from Yalova via the videoconferencing system SEGBİS. Gülerce stated that no one mentioned Emin Çölaşan who was not a defendant in the case, and argued that Emin Çölaşan stood up for not only FETÖ but also PKK and HDP in his pieces. When defense lawyers wanted to question Gülerce about his past connections to Gülen, the president Erdoğan Şimşek stopped them.

The real witness was not heard

On that day, at the request of the lawyers of the newspaper, the editor of the newspaper Kenan Kurtkaya was heard as witness. Kurtkaya was a witness with knowledge about the charges in question. When Kurtkaya indicated that it was he who had chosen the news articles mentioned in the indictment, the judge Erdoğan Şimşek interrupted him saying, “You are not a defendant. If you go on like this, I will discontinue your testimony.” Kurtkaya tried to continue his testimony but Judge Şimşek silenced him saying, “Your words go beyond your role as witness.” At the end of that day Gökmen Ulu was released. Mediha Olgun had been released a week prior to the completion of the indictment.

The key witness of the prosecutor retracted his statement

Fehmi Koru testified as a witness at the hearing on January 23, 2018. Koru retracted his statement concerning Akbay’s ties to Gülen, which he had written in his book “Ben Böyle Gördüm” (“That’s What I Saw”) and also mentioned in his statement to the prosecutor, saying that he had misunderstood Akbay’s father Ertuğrul Akbay’s words about how his son had met with “nice people” abroad and thought that he had established ties with the Gülen sect. After he left the witness box, Koru shook hands with Rahmi Turan, a columnist with Sözcü, before leaving the courtroom.

Who is Fehmi Koru?

Fehmi Koru was a crucial witness for the prosecutor’s office. Koru’s claims were the most important basis for the prosecution’s accusations because, in 2010, Koru had made a claim about Sözcü’s owner Burak Akbay in an article he had written in the newspaper Yeni Şafak under the pseudonym Taha Kıvanç. In the article, he had claimed that Burak Akbay’s father Ertuğrul Akbay had told Koru during a trip that his son Burak had stayed in a house that belonged to the Gülen Sect in Switzerland. Koru had reiterated this claim in his book “Ben Böyle Gördüm” (“That’s What I Saw”). Until 1998, Koru had worked as editor-in-chief, lead writer and Ankara representative at the pro-Gülen newspaper Zaman, which was established in 1986. From 1999 to 2016, he wrote for Yeni Şafak, Star and HaberTürk newspapers.

The judge received a promotion

The president of the panel of judges, Erdoğan Şimşek, was appointed as a Chamber President at the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice, with the 2018 summer promotions decree issued by the Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK). The new president of the panel of judges replacing him, Akın Gürlek had previously served as the president of Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court. In that capacity, Gürlek had sentenced HDP’s Former Co-Chairperson Selahattin Demirtaş to 4 years, 8 months in prison for his speech at the 2013 Nevruz celebrations, and former HDP MP Sırrı Süreyya Önder to 3.5 years in prison.

Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office drafted an indictment about Gökmen Ulu, Mediha Olgun, Yonca Yücekaleli and Burak Akbay, and separated the files of the other suspects, namely Sözcü columnists Emin Çölaşan and Saygı Öztürk. The investigation about these individuals has yet to be completed.
Gökmen Ulu was released after 174 days of imprisonment. Mediha Olgun was released after 120 days. The trial still continues. At the hearing held on November 7, 2018, the court delivered the case to the prosecutor to draft his opinion as to accusations.

THE SECOND INDICTMENT

A second indictment was drafted for the executives, writers and reporters of Sözcü Newspaper. In the new indictment, the prosecutor requested prison sentences of 7.5 to 15 years for Sözcü columnists Emin Çölaşan and Necati Doğru, the editor-in-chief Metin Yılmaz, the website’s editor-in-chief Mustafa Çetin, and the news coordinator Yücel Arı. The journalists were charged with “willingly and knowingly aiding and abetting a terrorist organization without being its member”. At the first hearing, the court ruled to merge this case with the aforementioned case against Sözcü.

While the case against Sözcü Newspaper continued, the Justice and Development Party government announced a Judicial Reform Strategy Document, as it had done many times before. The document included legal amendments that would have an impact on many trials hotly debated by the public.

The first package of the Strategy Document was presented to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey on September 30, 2019. The package proposed numerous amendments in a series of laws and proposed the addition of the following sentence to the Anti-Terror Law, which will directly affect the trials of journalists and writers:

“Statements of thought which do not exceed the limits of journalism, or which only present a criticism, do not constitute crime.”

The first judicial reform package including this phrase was adopted on October 17, 2019. It then came into force upon the approval of President Tayyip Erdoğan on October 24, 2019.

The 7th hearing of the Sözcü Newspaper trial was held on October 28, 2019, 4 days after this piece of legislation came into force. In their defense, the newspaper’s lawyers indicated that the new legislation was supposed to put an end to the criminalization of journalism and criticism. The court ordered that the prosecutor, who had previously requested a prison sentence of 7.5 to 15 years for the newspaper’s writers and correspondents, reconsider his case.

The legal proceedings ended with the hearing on December 27, 2019. The president of the panel of judges, Akın Gürlek handed down prison sentences of 3 years, 6 months, 15 days to Emin Çölaşan, 3 years, 6 months, 15 days to Necati Doğru, 3 years, 4 months to Mustafa Çetin, 3 years, 4 months to Metin Yılmaz, 1 year, 13 months to Yücel Arı and 1 year, 13 months to Gökmen Ulu. The case of Burak Akbay, standing trial in absentia, was separated, whereas Mediha Olgun was acquitted. It was remarkable that Akın Gürlek, while reading out the verdict, emphasized twice that the verdict was unanimous.

Only a few months ago, the Turkish parliament adopted a judicial reform package. The spokespeople of the government defended this package arguing that it would decriminalize journalism and criticism. However, Sözcü Newspaper’s writers, correspondents and employees have been sentenced for “knowingly and willing aiding and abetting the armed terrorist organization FETÖ/PDY” only on the basis of their news articles. This verdict will lead to much controversy about to what extent the Judicial Reform package approved by the parliament is actually implemented in courts.