Political Power and the Kurdish Media since the 1970s

For an analysis of the Kurdish media, case files may be a good start.

Because, in these files, one can find the list of all relevant television channels, magazines and newspapers in Kurdish and Turkish as well as their launch dates and the dates of their closure with a court order and / or access bans and recall orders. From the statements of the Kurdish media professionals and journalists standing trial, you can keep track of the assassinations of journalists and the attacks on newspaper offices. You may follow the social and political agenda of the period from the trial records…

For an analysis of the Kurdish media, case files may be a good start.

Because, in these files, one can find the list of all relevant television channels, magazines and newspapers in Kurdish and Turkish as well as their launch dates and the dates of their closure with a court order and / or access bans and recall orders. From the statements of the Kurdish media professionals and journalists standing trial, you can keep track of the assassinations of journalists and the attacks on newspaper offices. You may follow the social and political agenda of the period from the trial records…

For example, in the “KCK Press” indictment drafted by Istanbul Public Prosecutor Bilal Bayraktar, you may find a detailed account of the history of the Kurdish media:
Publications in Kurdish as well as Turkish from the second half of the 1970s onwards… Kurdish publications before and after the September 12th, 1980 military coup… Kurdish publications in Europe… Television broadcasting and radios from 1995 onwards… News agencies and newspaper websites launched in 2000s…

All media outlets listed in this indictment dated April 2012 were either closed down or an access ban was imposed upon them. Some of them resumed their broadcasts under different names; however, these were also shut down. Their employees were detained, and journalists were arrested.

The Kurdish press has always faced censorship and oppression since its inception. It has also received the designation “the Free Press Tradition” in reference to its journalistic activities that have always complied with the international ethical principles of journalism, and its history of not remaining silent and continuing to publish in the face of political repression.

The first Kurdish newspaper, “Kurdistan” was established by Mithat Mikdat, one of the children of the Bedirhani Family in exile, in Cairo. After its first issue, the newspaper was banned from being distributed in the Ottoman territory. Right after the 5th issue was published, Mithat Mikdat Bedirhan and those who helped distribute the newspaper in Ottoman lands were arrested and placed in Taşkışla Prison, where they were tortured. Despite everything, 31 issues of “Kurdistan” were published over 4 years and secretly distributed. Since then, the attitude of law enforcement towards Kurdish media has never changed.

The symbol of the Kurdish media:“Özgür Gündem”

The most important symbol of the “Free Press Tradition” in recent history was the first daily Kurdish newspaper published in Turkish, “Özgür Gündem”. The newspaper was published from May 30th, 1992, when its headline read “All Sovereignty Rests with State Security Courts (DGM)”, until April 14th, 1994, when it was closed down upon a court order. In its 683-day history, it was banned for 335 days. Newspaper executives were sentenced to a total of 147 years in prison and fines worth 21 billion lira. In two years, a total of 76 newspaper employees, 31 of whom were journalists, were killed in assassinations by “unknown assailants”.
Continuing the legacy of the journalists assassinated was part of the “Free Press Tradition”. Musa Anter and Press Martyrs Journalism Awards have been distributed every year since 1993 in memory of the journalist / writer Musa Anter killed in an armed attack in Diyarbakır in 1992, and other journalists killed. The Anter murder investigation, where the perpetrator remained “unidentified” for a long time, was reopened in 2009 as a result of a long struggle, including the ECHR’s verdict of the violation of the right to life, and right to an effective investigation. In 2012, the case was combined with the JİTEM file, however, no result has been obtained yet.

Bomb attack against the newspaper Özgür Ülke

After Özgür Gündem was closed, “Özgür Ülke” started being published on April 28th, 1994. However, on December 4th, 1994, bombs exploded in the newspaper’s technical offices in Kadırga, in the Fatih district of Istanbul and its central offices in Cağaloğlu. Explosives were found in the Ankara office as well. One employee of the newspaper was killed, and 23 employees were injured. Many journalists and writers supported Özgür Ülke to ensure its continuation. 15 days after the bomb attack, the newspaper issued a secret document signed by the then-prime minister, Tansu Çiller. The document gave instructions for “Urgent measures to overcome this important threat against the indivisible integrity of the homeland and the nation”, with reference to “Özgür Ülke”. Around 2 months later (February 2nd, 1995), the newspaper was shut down by a court order, and by that date, 220 of its 247 issues had been banned. The perpetrators of the bomb attack were never identified.

Özgür Gündem and Özgür Ülke were followed by other newspapers under different names: Yeni Politika, Demokrasi, Ülkede Gündem, Özgür Bakış, Güncel, Yaşamda Gündem, Haftaya Bakış, Öteki Bakış, Yeni Bakış, Alternatif, Gelecek, Özgür Ülke, Gerçek, Günlük. But they were all referred to as “Özgür Gündem”. The names of the scores of assassinated “Free Press” employees always hanged on the walls of their editorial offices.
The Kurdish newspaper “Azadiya Welat” was published on a weekly basis from 1994 to 2006 and as a daily from 2006 to 2016, and its editor-in-chief Vedat Kurşun faced hundreds of years in prison for the news stories published in the newspaper.

In the 2000s, the number of Kurdish publications increased. In addition to the newspapers and magazines in Kurdish and Turkish, Dicle News Agency was established in 2002, followed by the Denmark-based Roj Tv in 2004 and Netherlands-based Fırat News Agency (ANF) in 2005.

This development was followed by the “KCK Press” trial, the first example of a collective trial against journalists in Turkey and also the lawsuit involving the largest number of journalists until date.
Lawsuits, access bans, closures, recall orders, detentions and arrests, and the conduct of investigations by anti-terror prosecutors rather than press bureau prosecutors became routine across the board with the State of Emergency, which came into force after the July 15th coup attempt. However, such repression had always been the case as regards Kurdish media.

KCK operations preceding the “solution process”

The KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union/Koma Ciwakên Kurdistan) operations went down in Turkey’s collective memory with a photo dated August 25th, 2009 showing the arrested Kurdish mayors handcuffed and lined up in a single row. The operations began on April 14th, 2009:

This was one month after the Oslo meeting between the government and the PKK; two weeks after the 2009 local elections when the Democratic Society Party (DTP) won 1 metropolitan municipality, 7 municipalities and 51 district municipalities; and one day after the PKK declared a 2-month truce, with the statement “For the first time, the idea has emerged that we may embark upon a solution process for the Kurdish problem in a conflict-free environment”.

As it would be heard frequently in courtrooms later on, the solution process, or the “Kurdish opening” as it was described back then, had begun to send ripples across the society. Statements issued by the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan via Kandil were shared with the public. The then-president of Abdullah Gül stated that “the Kurdish issue is the most important issue awaiting a solution in the country” (May 12th, 2009) while Beşir Atalay, the then-Minister of the Interior, indicated that they were drafting a series of legal regulations for the “Kurdish opening” (July 29th, 2009). Those were the days when AKP MPs connected to Roj Tv and made remarks about the solution of the Kurdish issue. However, on the other hand, the KCK operations against politicians, lawyers, NGO workers and union activists from the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), Democratic Society Party (DTP), and Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) continued, and they stood trial in the so-called specially authorized courts. “Peace Groups” coming to Turkey from the PKK camps in Kandil and Mahmur upon Öcalan’s demand were taken into custody, and tried. The “Kurdish opening” was a hot topic. In December 2009, the DTP was closed down by a court order, and its presidents Ahmet Türk and Aysel Tuğluk were stripped of their status as MPs.

The KCK operations and the solution process continued in parallel.
When the June 2011 elections took place, six MPs were in prison under the KCK case and two others under the Ergenekon case. The number of individuals arrested during the KCK investigation had reached thousands.

KCK Press Trial: “News stories that jeopardize the state”

The “KCK Press” trial was also part of the KCK operation. On December 20th, 2011, 49 journalists and media professionals were detained in police raids on the offices of Özgür Gündem Newspaper, DİHA News Agency, Demokratik Modernite Magazine, Etkin News Agency and Fırat Dağıtım. After four days of detention, 36 journalists were arrested. An indictment was drafted against 44 journalists. Later, the files of two other defendants were merged with the file, and the number of total defendants in the “KCK Press” trial increased to 46.

Journalists were detained for 4 months until the indictment was prepared. The prosecutor claimed that the Kurdish media’s editorial policy and news stories were guided by a “KCK / PKK Press Committee”, and the journalists were charged with “Leading a terrorist organization” or “membership of a terrorist organization”. The 800-page indictment and the annex files filling hundreds of pages consisted of “transcriptions” obtained through wiretapping and published news stories. Some of these “transcriptions” were obtained by wiretapping journalists’ personal phones or office phones, while others were obtained by wiretapping calls with other individuals falling under the scope of the KCK operations. Conversations with news sources, colleagues and editors were presented as “links to the terrorist organization”. It was alleged that they “participated under the guise of a journalist” in the protests that they covered. They were accused of “not engaging in journalistic activities, but rather publishing news stories that favor the terrorist organization”, and “penning news that may jeopardize the state”. The evidence presented against them included news stories about the Kurdish issue, their interviews with Kurdish politicians, reporting on KCK investigations, presence of people arrested under the KCK operations among their news sources, or simply the fact that they were working in the Kurdish media. Live connections to Roj Tv programs and the publication of their news stories by ANF were presented as ground for accusations.

The first hearing took place exactly 9 months after the journalists were arrested. A total of 37 Kurdish media employees, 24 of whom were journalists, were held in prison for periods ranging from 9 months to 2.5 years.

The trial starts in a specially authorized court

The “KCK Press” trial started in a specially authorized court of the period (September 10th, 2012 - March 3rd, 2014, 15th High Criminal Court with Special Authority). The hearings started in Çağlayan Courthouse but then were moved to the courtroom in the Silivri Prison Campus, due to the “conduct of the defendants during trial”. The proceedings were marked by debates with the panel of judges, protests, debates on the right to defense in the mother tongue, and further criminal investigations launched against the defendants and lawyers due to their statements in court.

While the trial went on, hunger strikes continued in prisons for the right to defense in the mother tongue. The 800-page indictment against 44 defendants, and the 185-page indictment against the two defendants whose files were later merged were read out loud by two TRT announcers in a mostly empty hall abandoned in protest. After the debates in 11 hearings, Kurdish interpreters were finally brought to the court for defense in the mother tongue, on condition that they would be paid by the defendants.

In June 2012, the specially authorized courts were abolished with the 3rd Judicial Reform Package, but they were to continue their function until the ongoing trials were concluded. The lawyers argued that the legal reform rendered the courts controversial, and requested the discontinuation of the hearings, but this request was rejected each time by the same court. After the corruption and bribery investigations of December 17th-25th, 2013 against government officials, when illegal wiretapping records concerning these officials were leaked to the internet, the government finally began to question the legitimacy of the specially authorized courts.

On February 21st, 2014, the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed a legal amendment abolishing specially authorized courts and transferring the ongoing trials in these courts to high criminal courts. Following this development, the last session in the 15th High Criminal Court with Special Authority took place on March 3rd, 2014, and the president of the panel of judges, Kazım Kahyaoğlu announced that the functioning of the court was terminated due to the amendment to the law. The legal amendment came into force three days later. The proceedings continued in the Istanbul 3rd High Criminal Court in Çağlayan Courthouse from July 10th, 2014 onwards.
The 15th High Criminal Court with Special Authority released 21 defendants during the trials. The remaining 16 defendants under arrest were released within two months of the legal amendment. Until date, 17 hearings have been held at the Istanbul 3rd High Criminal Court. However, there has been no progress in the case. The prosecution has still not submitted its opinion as to the accusations.

Journalists as well as judges and prosecutors stand trial

KCK operations and arrests, which had stopped after the official launch of the solution process during the Newroz celebrations of 2013, continued from where they had left off after the solution process ended in 2015. According to data by HDP, 4,912 people were arrested under the KCK / PKK trials from 2009 to 2014. From 2015, when the solution process ended, until January 2017, 9,200 people were taken into custody and 2,897 of them were arrested.

The specially authorized judges and prosecutors running the KCK trials of the period later figured among the thousands of judges and prosecutors arrested on charges of membership to the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) after the July 15th, 2016 coup attempt.

Ali Alçık, one of the presidents of 15th High Criminal Court, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Kazım Kahyaoğlu, who had served as the president in the last three sessions, was caught and arrested in September 2016; he was released pending trial in May 2019. The KCK trial prosecutor İsmail Işık was detained from July 2016 until December 2017, and his trial still continues. The indictment prosecutor Bilal Bayraktar who is now a fugitive faces aggravated life sentence on charges of “membership of a terror organization”, “using force and violence to overthrow the government of the Republic of Turkey or to prevent it fully or partly from performing its duties”, “disclosing confidential information concerning state security for espionage”, “violating secrecy”, “violating personal liberties”, “professional misconduct”, and “targeting officials involved in the fight against terrorism”.

In this file, where journalists are still facing long prison sentences, lawsuits were filed against not only the investigation, indictment and trial prosecutors and specially authorized court presidents, but also against the police officers who took part in investigation and prosecution, all on charges of membership of FETÖ. In the KCK Press trial, where no progress has been made since many years, the prosecutor has yet to present his opinion as to the accusations, and the file numbered 2018/273 concerning the trial of the said police officers in the 26th Criminal Court of First Instance has yet to be sent to the court.

Defense lawyers argue that the case should be dropped since the police gathering the evidence, the prosecutors conducting the investigation and preparing the indictment, and the panel of judges conducting the hearings are currently standing trial on charges that cast a shadow on judicial independence.

A conspiracy trial?

Defendants and lawyers repeatedly stated that the “KCK Press” case is a political machination aimed at undermining the solution process.

At the first hearing after the December 17th-25th corruption and bribery investigation, lawyer Ercan Kanar said, “This case has been orchestrated by those who are disturbed by the Oslo talks.” Lawyer Sinan Zincir stated that retrial was on the table in cases such as KCK, Ergenekon, and Sledgehammer, and that the then-prime minister Erdoğan said that “a conspiracy” was organized against state institutions:

“We have explained in front of the court which conspiracies were organized during the KCK trials, one by one. Today we have the right to know this: Who arrested Kurdish journalists, lawyers, students, activists? Which prosecutors of the ruling coalition launched the operation? Was it the parallel state or pro-AKP judges? ”

In the report titled “July 15th Coup Attempt and Fethullah Terrorist Organization in 10 Questions” published on the Turkish Presidency website in July 2019, KCK cases were listed under the title “Conspiracy Cases”, along with the Ergenekon, Balyoz, Selam-Tevhid, Tahşiye and Military Espionage cases. The report also stated, “FETÖ aims to sabotage the solution of the Kurdish issue”.

However, just one day after the report was covered in a news story by the Mesopotamian Agency, the “KCK Case” was removed from the “Conspiracy Cases” list in the report.

Özgür Gündem trials

A few months before the “KCK Press” operation was launched, the Özgür Gündem newspaper, known as the symbol of the Kurdish media, had started being published once again, on April 4th, 2011.

However, 7 months after its launch, the newspaper’s office was raided within the scope of KCK operations, its computers were confiscated, and two lawyers who were also among the newspaper’s writers were arrested. Özgür
Gündem was listed among the “KCK / PKK media organs” in the KCK Press trial indictment, and 6 employees of the newspaper were tried in this case.

In March 2012, the newspaper was closed down for one month due to alleged “propaganda for a terrorist organization” and Reyhan Çapan, the newspaper’s publisher and editor-in-chief, was sentenced to 1 year, 3 months in prison.

Pressures mount after the failure of the solution process

Just three days after the police murders in July 2015 in Urfa Ceylanpınar, which were presented as a pretext for discontinuing the solution process, the then-Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said, as regards the Özgür Gündem and Evrensel newspapers, “These are crime machines. If we sue them, they will drown in prison sentences.” Then, lawsuits started being filed against newspaper executives and writers, and access bans were announced. At the Anti-Terror branch of the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, in August 2015, two prosecutors were charged specifically with examining printed publications on a daily basis. From July 2015 to June 2016, 30 lawsuits were filed against the newspaper as per Turkish Criminal Code Article 301, that is, “insulting the Turkish nation, the Republic of Turkey, state institutions and organs” and as per Article 299, namely, “insulting the President.” In the first six months of 2016, 110 lawsuits were filed based on various articles of the Anti-Terror Law. Newspaper employees’ yellow press cards were canceled in March 2016.

In the face of investigations, lawsuits, police raids on newspaper offices and homes of employees, as well as censorship and fines, the Editor-in-Chief on Watch campaign was launched on May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day. 1.5 months after the start of the campaign, some of the individuals who became Özgür Gündem’s Editor-in-Chief for a day in solidarity were arrested: Erol Önderoğlu, Turkey Representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Prof. Şebnem Korur Fincancı, Chairwoman of Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV) and writer Ahmet Nesin. Petition campaigns were organized in the face of mounting pressure. The Editor-in-Chief on Watch campaign continued until August 7th, 2016.

Journalists showing solidarity with Özgür Gündem sentenced for “terror propaganda”

38 individuals who took part in the Editor-in-Chief on Watch campaign were sued for “propaganda for a terrorist organization” and “printing or publishing statements or announcements of terrorist organizations”. A person’s case was dropped due to the expiry of the statute of limitation. Seven people were acquitted. Three still stand trial.

Özgür Gündem was first “temporarily” closed down on August 16th, 2016 by Istanbul 8th Criminal Court of Peace on allegations of “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization and acting as the media organ of an armed terrorist organization”. It was completely closed down by the State of Emergency Decree Law issued on October 30th, 2016.

Upon an arrest warrant for nine people, including the publisher, editor-in-chief, managing editor, and members of the advisory board, the Beyoğlu office of the newspaper was raided by special operations police. During the raid, 22 people, 17 of whom were journalists, including the IMC TV team (it would later be closed down with a Decree Law) who were broadcasting live from the building, were battered and then detained with their hands cuffed behind their back.

Newspaper executives, for whom arrest warrants had been issued, were detained in house raids. Eight journalists were charged with “targeting the unity of the homeland and of the state”, “membership of a terror organization”, “establishing a terror organization” and “spreading propaganda for a terror organization” at the “Özgür Gündem Main Trial”; 17 journalists detained in the raid are still on trial on charges of “showing resistance to prevent officers from fulfilling their duty” and “insult”. In another file where dozens of cases concerning news stories and articles published in the newspaper are combined, 24 people face prison sentences for “terrorist propaganda”, “praising the crime and criminal” and “incitement to commit crime”.

Özgürlükçü Demokrasi, Yeni Yaşam, DİHA, JİNHA and others

Özgürlükçü Demokrasi started being published a week after the closure of Özgür Gündem, which faced 248 trials during its 5-year life, and was active for about 2 years until it was shut down with the Decree Law No 701. There were police raids on the newspaper offices and the printing press where it was printed. In the case where Gün Printing Press’ owner and 20 employees were tried, the judge handed down prison sentences ranging from 3 years, 9 months to 7.5 years to two people on charges of “abetting the terrorist organization”, and to five people for “membership of a terrorist organization”. In the case involving 14 employees of Özgürlükçü Demokrasi, three of whom under arrest, the judge handed down prison sentences ranging from 1 year 6 months to 3 years 1 month on charges of “abetting the terrorist organization without being a member”, and “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization”.

After Özgürlükçü Demokrasi, Yeni Yaşam newspaper and its website were launched on May 25th, 2018 and are still active. The newspaper’s managing editor Osman Akın stands trial for “spreading continuous propaganda for a terrorist organization” due to the news stories on the hunger strike by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) MP Leyla Güven in June 2019.

Dicle News Agency (DİHA), which was established in April 2002, was closed down with a Decree Law in October 2016. Access to its website was blocked 48 times. According to a report by DİHA, 59 of its journalists were detained from July 2015 when the solution process was disrupted until the date the agency was closed. Four of its reporters were assaulted. 10 reporters were threatened and battered by security forces.

Dicle Medya News Agency (dihaber), Azadiya Welat, Jin News Agency (JİNHA) and Gazete Şûjin were launched one after the other and shut down with Decree Laws since 2016, and the “Free Press Tradition” now lives on with Mezopotamya News Agency and JinNews.

However, even the URL addresses of these news agencies suffice to reveal the censorship that they face. The Mesopotamian Agency, which has received 21 access bans, is now accessible at “http://mezopotamyaajansi22.com” and JinNews at “http://www.jinnews6.xyz” -at least, until the next access ban…