When a bear wants to eat its cub, it will cover it with mud.

“How could I know that I was to stand trial for capital punishment when my friends were in power?”: “When a bear wants to eat its cub, it will cover it with mud.”

“How could I know that I was to stand trial for capital punishment when my friends were in power?”: “When a bear wants to eat its cub, it will cover it with mud.”

Date: January 30th, 2012
Place: Ankara Chamber of Commerce, Congress and Exhibition Center.

On that night, Tayyip Erdoğan described a newspaper as “a flower that blooms amidst fire”:

“It’s not just a newspaper, it has kept record of the last quarter of a century,” he said. He added that “Telling the truth in the most challenging times requires paying a heavy price. The newspaper captured the mood of Anatolia during periods when most newspapers’ headlines were decided upon outside their offices.” He described it as a “beacon of clean journalism”.
President Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister then, was the guest of honor that night. He was accompanied by Deputy Prime Ministers Bülent Arınç, Bekir Bozdağ, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and Hüseyin Çelik, Deputy President of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)…. Among the more than 3500 guests, there were also CHP members, MHP members and senior bureaucrats….
That night was the 25th anniversary celebration of the Zaman Newspaper in Ankara.

‘Without ever seeking revenge…’

Erdoğan said things he had repeated frequently since his stint as Mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality:
“Back then, we were fighting against headlines. Their headlines used to read, “He can’t even become a district mayor”. They had journalists write news stories. Then they placed their clippings in a legal file and filed a lawsuit against our party. God knows that we never sought revenge, and never will.”

About two years after that day…

A special administrator was appointed to take over Zaman newspaper, subsequently the newspaper was shut down, and its previous writers and executives stood trial in high criminal courts.
Although Erdoğan said “I will never seek revenge”, after the failed coup attempt of July 15th he would be “fighting against the headlines” of Zaman Newspaper.

This process of investigation and trial also corresponded to the split between the AKP government and its strongest erstwhile ally within the state apparatus, namely the Fethullah Gülen sect.

30 years without fighting the headlines

Zaman newspaper started being published in 1986 with its first black and white issue under the management of Fehmi Koru. In 1993, the newspaper went global and in 1995, became the first Turkish media company to set up a website.
30 years later, on March 4th, 2016, a special administrator was to seize its publishing company upon the orders of Istanbul Sixth Criminal Court Of Peace. The legal justification of this order read, “There is strong evidence to suggest that the company was instrumentalized by Fethullah Terror Organization / Parallel State Structure to support its operations”…

A headline

In the period before the appointment of the special administrator, it was yet another headline which gave the signal for the looming conflict between these two strong power groups. Zaman newspaper’s issue dated November 14th, 2013 changed the course of politics in Turkey. The newspaper carried the headline “Heavy Blow to Education” to describe plans by AKP to shut down the private courses called dershane on the pretext that these provided financial support to the sect. Until then Zaman newspaper had never published headlines directly critical of government policies. From that day onwards, it pursued a critical editorial stance.

One month after this headline, three ministers from AKP and their children were involved in a corruption and bribery scandal, indicating the huge wedge created between the government and the sect. The sect and the government stood on the opposite sides of the wedge. In this polarization, the government considered that Zaman newspaper sided with the sect. During the police operation which went down in political history as “December 17/25 corruption and bribery investigation”, the children of the ministers were taken into custody. Erdoğan and his family were also mentioned in the allegations. The judicial investigation was never completed, however, this process brought about the resignation of the said ministers.

The government’s response to this operation would be appointing a special administrator to the newspaper on March 4th, 2016 upon a court order. In this process, the government went after the police chiefs and persecutors who launched the operation with allegations of creating a “parallel state structure”. These groups received the first blow of reprisal for corruption allegations. The next target would be media outlets close to the sect. After the appointment of the special administrator to Zaman newspaper, its Istanbul office would be raided by the police. Right before its administration was taken over by the government, Zaman newspaper carried the headline “Constitution suspended” to describe this court order.

On the day of the police raid, the newspaper published a statement on its website. This statement titled “We are worried” read, “For over two years, Turkey’s top-selling newspaper Zaman has been facing severe repression in the form of canceled accreditations, tax investigations, and threats against advertisers and readers. Now we are facing the threat of confiscation, and the appointment of a special administrator”. The Court appointed special administrators to run Feza Gazetecilik, the publishing company of Zaman newspaper and Cihan News Agency. The journalists and writers of Zaman established new newspapers called Yarına Bakış and Yeni Hayat.

12 individuals including Zaman Newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı and Samanyolu Television’s Broadcasting Group President Hidayet Karaca were taken into custody. After spending four days in custody, eight individuals including Dumanlı were released on condition of judicial control. Karaca was later rearrested on charges of establishing and leading a terrorist organization, and three other individuals were arrested on charges of being a member of a terrorist organization. Known to have links with Gülen sect, Samanyolu Broadcasting Group and İpek Medya were excluded from the TÜRKSAT satellite broadcasting network controlled by the state. Likewise, a court ordered the appointment of a special administrator to run Bugün-Kanaltürk also known to have links to the sect.

The journalists and writers of the shuttered Zaman newspaper established new newspapers. The government would later close down these newspapers as well.

İstanbul’s Deputy Chief Public Prosecutor Fuzuli Aydoğdu, shortly after the failed coup attempt, initiated an investigation against the writers of Zaman newspaper who continued their journalistic activities in other media outlets. Subsequently, detention orders were issued for 47 individuals including the former journalists, employees and executives of the newspapers.

On July 27th, 2016, Zaman newspaper’s journalists and employees were taken into custody on allegations of “membership of the FETÖ/PDY terrorist organization”. After spending 3 to 4 days in detention, they were charged with “membership of an armed terrorist group”, “attempting to overthrow the Turkish Republic government or to prevent it from partially or entirely fulfilling its duties” and “manipulating newspaper sales figures to receive unfair financial support from the state”.

A few months later, thanks to the State of Emergency established after the coup attempt of July 15th, the government acquired the authority to pass decree laws (KHK) without approval of the Parliament. This authority was the final point of the institutional conflict between the government and the headlines of Zaman newspaper. Upon the State of Emergency decree law dated July 27th, 2016, Zaman newspaper -already under the management of a special administrator- was shuttered. This decree law was signed personally by President Tayyip Erdoğan.

The State of Emergency did not only target Zaman newspaper. One of the first decree laws issued shut down 131 media outlets, including Cihan News Agency, Bugün TV, Can Erzincan TV, Samanyolu Haber, Samanyolu TV and Zaman newspaper, all with links to the sect. Savings Deposit Insurance Fund of Turkey confiscated and sold away all the assets of Zaman newspaper as well as the other media outlets that were shut down. When the public broadcaster Anadolu Agency was about to move its headquarters from Ankara to İstanbul, one location considered for the purpose was Zaman newspaper’s former offices in Yenibosna which had been raided by the police.

Subsequently, another operation was launched against the journalists, writers and employees of Zaman newspaper’s publishing company Feza Group. Many of the senior executives were overseas, and the prosecutors requested life sentences for the writers of the newspaper.

Indictment against “the beacon of clean journalism”…

The prosecutor İsmet Bozkurt who conducted the investigation against the former writers and managers of Zaman newspaper explain this situation as following in his indictment:
“The media outlets with links to FETÖ-PDY had not given explicit support to any political party before the general elections of 2002; and after the Justice and Development Party came to power in these elections, they refrained from clashing with the government in its first terms in office. However, after the government learned about the secret activities of FETÖ-PDY and started to take action to eradicate such activities, the group’s media outlets violated the limits of the freedom of the press to launch direct attacks on the government.”

“If he ran away…”

The Criminal Court of Peace, in the legal justification of its arrest warrant against Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç, Ahmet Turan Alkan, Mustafa Ünal, Nuriye Ural and Lalezar Sarıibrahimoğlu, pointed to the fact that Zaman’s former editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanlı had fled overseas. According to the court order, measures of judicial control would be ineffective against these journalists and writers, because Dumanlı, who was subject to judicial control, had managed to escape abroad while standing trial for the same crime.

The former writers and employees of the newspapers remained in prison for about nine months pending the completion of the indictment against them. Prison sentences of aggravated life sentences were requested against the writers and journalists Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç, Lalezar Sarıibrahimoğlu, Nuriye Ural, Mümtazer Türköne, Ahmet Turan Alkan, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, İhsan Duran Dağı, Mustafa Ünal, İbrahim Karayeğen, Mehmet Özdemir on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, Turkish Parliament and the Turkish Republic, and preventing them from fulfilling their functions”, as well as 7.5 to 15 years of prison on charges of “committing crimes for a terrorist organization without being its member”.

The indictment cited the names of many defendants two or three times. The only evidence cited in the indictment was newspaper articles and columns from Zaman. No such evidence was presented to support the allegations against certain individuals; their names were simply written down in the indictment.

For example, Orhan Kemal Cengiz was featured in the indictment against Zaman, but he wasn’t even a writer over the said newspaper. Journalists and writers previously described by Tayyip Erdoğan with the words “beacon of clean journalism” were standing trial on allegations of organizing a military coup, and terrorism, only five years later.

The indictment against the former writers and employees of the newspaper featured 30 individuals. Afterwards, the files of the administrative staff were separated from the file against the journalists and writers. Six hearings were held during the trial, which began in September 2017 and ended in July 2018. Defendant journalists appeared before the judge and presented their defense 14 months after they were arrested.

Resisting the verdict of a high court

A number of firsts in the Turkish judicial system took place as the writer Şahin Alpay defended himself in court. While prisoned pending the completion of the indictment against him, Alpay filed an application with the Constitutional Court in September 2016. The latter ruled that keeping the journalist in prison for one year and four months pending trial was in violation of his rights. Accordingly, Alpay’s rights such as personal freedom and freedom of expression and place had been violated. In a first in Turkish judicial history, İstanbul 13. High Criminal Court, which conducted the trial against the former writers and employees of Zaman newspaper, did not order the release of Alpay despite the Constitutional Court’s verdict that his rights had been violated during the judicial proceedings. That is, the local court defied the verdict of the highest court in the country.

Release before the verdict of ECHR

Upon this development, Alpay filed another application with the Constitutional Court arguing that the local court’s defiance of the highest court was tantamount to a violation of his rights. Meanwhile the European Court of Human Rights had also ruled that his rights had been violated. Five days before the ECHR announced its official verdict about the journalist, the Constitutional Court ruled once again that the journalist’s rights had been violated. However, another first transpired at this moment. Previously, when the constitutional court reached a verdict that a certain imprisonment constituted a violation of rights, the local court would release the defendant in order to eradicate the said violation. In other words, the Constitutional Court would only underscore the violation, without indicating what concrete steps should be taken to eradicate that violation. However, since its first verdict had been defied, the Constitutional Court had to change its course of action. In its second verdict of rights violations concerning Alpay, the Constitutional Court explicitly stated that the journalist had to be released from prison. İstanbul 13. High Criminal Court, which had resisted the first verdict, ordered the release of Alpay. As a result, Alpay got out of prison before the ECHR announced its verdict, one month short of his 75th birthday.

Prosecutor insists on his allegation

In his judicial opinion as to the accusations, the prosecutor requested aggravated life sentences for the writers and journalists Ali Bulaç, Mümtazer Türköne, İbrahim Karayeğen, Mehmet Özdemir, Mustafa Ünal, Ahmet Turan Alkan, Şahin Alpay, İhsan Duran Dağı and Orhan Kemal Cengiz on allegations of “using force and violence to overthrow the order established by the constitution of the Turkish Republic, to replace it with another order, or to prevent the functioning of the said order”, as well as 7.5 to 15 years of imprisonment on charges of “membership of an armed terrorist organization.” In other words, the prosecutor did not back off from his claim that journalists committed crimes of “coup plotting” and “terrorism”. Prosecutors only turned the triple aggravated life sentence into life sentence. The prosecutor requested that Lalezar Sarıibrahimoğlu and Nuriye Ural be imprisoned for 7.5 to 15 years on allegations of “knowingly and willingly abetting a terrorist organization without being a part of its hierarchical structures.”

Allegations change in the middle of the legal proceedings

The prosecutor changed his judicial opinion about the four journalists a few days after announcing it. He retracted the allegation that the journalists Orhan Kemal Cengiz, İhsan Dağı, İbrahim Karayeğen and Mehmet Özdemir tried to organize a military coup. He also changed the allegation of membership of a terrorist organization against Karayeğen and Özdemir into leadership of a terrorist organization, which necessitates a harsher punishment. He changed the allegation of membership of a terrorist organization against Cengiz and Dağı into spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization, which requires a lighter sentence.

No prison sentence for coup plotting

The court reached a different verdict. After the military coup attempt of July 15th, journalists stood trial on allegations of “membership of a terrorist organization” as well as “coup plotting”; however, none of them would be given prison sentences for the latter crime.
İstanbul 13. High Criminal Court handed down prison sentences of eight years nine months to the journalists Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç and Ahmet Turan Alkan for “membership of an armed terrorist organization”. Journalist İbrahim Karayeğen was given a prison sentence of nine years for “membership of an armed terrorist organization”. İhsan Duran Dağı, Lalezer Sarıibrahimoğlu, Mehmet Özdemir, Nuriye Ural and Orhan Kemal Cengiz were separately acquitted from all the allegations. These journalists were released during the legal proceedings or after verdict was announced.

“Continuation of their stay in prison…”

Mümtazer Türköne and Mustafa Ünal were handed down prison sentences of 10 years six months for “membership of an armed terrorist organizations”, and they were not released. They are still in prison, although an appeal process is underway…

Political dissidence in legal defense

AKP government had not fought against the headlines of Zaman newspaper for many years; however, later on, the newspaper was first threatened, a special administrative was appointed foe its management, and it was finally shuttered. Its journalists and writers were imprisoned pending trial on allegations of “coup plotting” and “terrorism”, and handed down prison sentences for “membership of a terrorist organization”. This contradiction left its mark in the defenses presented by the journalists.
For instance, the journalist Ali Bulaç, in his defense, stated, “is there a sentence harsher than life sentence? Let me remind you that, the life sentence basically corresponds to the capital punishment in the previous law codes”, and added, “How could I know that I was to be tried for capital punishment when my friends were in power?”

Or the journalist Mustafa Ünal had stated the following in his defense:
“I kept a close watch on Tayyip Erdoğan, since I visited him during his stay in Pınarhisar prison. I am one of the journalists who accompanied him on his overseas travels. We are individuals well known to conservative circles and the AK Party constituency. There is a Russian saying: When a bear wants to eat its cub, it will cover it with mud. Some may think that we are likewise covered in mud. However, this is simply the result of loud and continuous propaganda. Injustice is killing the Turkish state. My following statements are the reflection of (…) my disappointment with the state, the judiciary and AK Party. I feel very deep resentment and disappointment towards AK Party, which I have supported since its inception. In actual fact, it is AK Party that stands trial here.”