In September 2016, the ‘hacker’ group called ‘RedHack’ announced that they had hacked the email account of Berat Albayrak, the then-minister of Energy and Natural Resources. The content of the emails, which were claimed to belong to Albayrak, was shared through social media and journalists made news reports about the content.
An investigation was opened by the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office about the journalists Derya Okatan, Eray Sargın, Metin Yoksu, Ömer Çelik and Tunca Öğreten, who reported on the e-mails’ content. The file of Deniz Yücel (a reporter for the German-based Die Welt newspaper), who was also investigated under the same scope, was separated from that of the other journalists.
According to the information provided in the indictment drafted later, it was a tip-off e-mail sent to Istanbul Police Department on December 20th, 2016, which prompted the prosecutor’s office to take action. According to this tip-off, “18-19 journalists sponsored by terrorist organizations” had shared and published the e-mails leaked by RedHack.
Six journalists were detained on December 25th, 2016. The journalists were kept in custody for 24 days. The court issued a confidentiality order for the file. Yet, a news report headlined, “Operation against the perception team of RedHack” was published on the same day on the Sabah Newspaper’s website, stating that, “The suspects spread propaganda for some of the illegal activities of a hacker group called RedHack through social media with the aim of managing perceptions.”
The journalists were referred to the court on January 17th, 2017. A former reporter of the Diken news webs site, Tunca Öğreten and the news manager of the now shuttered Dicle News Agency (DİHA), Ömer Çelik, were arrested upon the orders of the Istanbul 8th Criminal Court of Peace and taken to Istanbul Silivri High Security Closed Prison.
Etkin News Agency’s (ETHA) managing editor Derya Okatan, Yolculuk newspaper’s managing editor Eray Sargın and DİHA reporter Metin Yoksu were released, with judicial control requirement.
The indictment against the six journalists was completed on June 23rd, 2017. Tunca Öğreten and Ömer Çelik had to spend five months in prison before the indictment against them was drafted.
The indictment stated that the investigation was based on a tip-off e-mail, and secret witness statements. The indictment also listed the social media posts by the journalists, claiming that “they had ties to terror organizations.”
It was stated in the indictment that the hacker group called RedHack got hold of the e-mails belonging to Berat Albayrak, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law and the then-Minister of Energy and Natural Resources. It was also claimed that the hackers’ objective was to denigrate the democratically elected government and to create the perception that the national energy policies were a failure, by manipulating information about the ministry.
In addition, it was claimed that the suspects tried to create the perception that “Albayrak was associated with ISIS.”
According to the indictment, the secret witness nicknamed “Çakı” affirmed these claims. “Çakı” asserted that the e-mails claimed to belong to Albayrak were sent to the journalists via their Twitter accounts.
The journalists’ social media posts were presented as evidence for “spreading terror propaganda.”
In the indictment, Tunca Öğreten was charged with “membership of an armed terror organization” and “blocking or disrupting an information system, destroying or altering its data.” The other five journalists were charged with “spreading propaganda for an armed terror organization” and “blocking or disrupting an information system, destroying or altering its data.” As such, each of the six journalists faced a prison sentence totaling three to 11 years.
The trial of the six journalists began with the first hearing held at Istanbul 29th High Criminal Court on October 24th, 2017. It was remarkable that the president of the panel of judges was the same judge who had ordered the arrest of the two journalists during investigation in the first place. Tunca Öğreten and Ömer Çelik had been in jail for about 10 months at this first hearing.
News web site Diken’s editor Tunca Öğreten stated in his defense that, he was accused of MLKP membership while being detained in his home, of DHKP-C membership at the police station, of RedHack membership at the prosecutor’s office, and of FETÖ membership at court. Öğreten underlined that his news article did not mention the government’s energy policy nor establish a connection between ISIS and the energy minister, and that it was the prosecutor who made such a baseless association. In response to being accused in the indictment for following various Twitter accounts, he stated, “I follow leftist groups as well as ISIS-linked accounts on Twitter. Does that make me a jihadist Marxist?”
DİHA’s news manager Ömer Çelik presented his defense in Kurdish, stating that he was tortured at the time of his detention and then at the Diyarbakır Police Department. Çelik asked, “Aren’t we supposed to see, write, or say that the king is naked?”
ETHA’s managing editor Derya Okatan stated in her defense that she reported on the e-mail correspondence by Albayrak to fulfill her responsibility as a journalist, and asked “What were state secrets doing in the minister’s private e-mail account?”
Eray Sargın, the managing editor of Yolculuk, stated in his defense that the e-mails in question had news value and that all reporting on this issue fell within the scope of freedom of press and freedom of expression.
DİHA correspondent Metin Yoksu stated in his defense that he was added to the Twitter group mentioned in the indictment without his consent, and did not keep track of what was written in the group.
DİHA’s news manager Ömer Çelik, was released at the first hearing.
The second hearing of the trial was held on December 6th, 2017 and Tunca Öğreten was released.
The third hearing of the trial was held on March 20th, 2018. The court lifted Öğreten’s judicial control requirement of signing a document at the police station twice a week.
The fourth hearing of the trial was held on September 13th, 2018.
The sixth hearing of the trial was held on January 8th, 2019. During the hearing, it was seen that the panel of judges had changed.
The court requested that the expert witness report on the digital materials be submitted to the court as soon as possible, and if it could not be submitted, the expert witness had to present an explanation for that. The hearing was adjourned.
The seventh hearing of the trial was held on April 16th, 2019. At the end of the hearing, the court ruled to exempt Öğreten, as well as Derya Okatan and Metin Yoksu from attending the hearings.
The eighth hearing took place on September 24th, 2019. The court rejected the request for the lifting of overseas travel bans, but ordered the return of digital material seized from the journalists.
The ninth hearing of the trial took place on February 6th, 2020. Eray Sargın said, “We have been standing trial for three years. We ought to have made much more progress in so many trials; but we have only recently taken back the digital materials seized from us. I demand that a verdict to be reached.” Tunca Öğreten stated, “I am accused of aiding the terror organizations FETÖ and DHKP-C without being their member. We have reached the 9th hearing, but the court has yet to present a concrete explanation as to how I might aid these two distinct organizations at the same time. On the other hand, Minister Albayrak, mentioned in the file as a complainant, has not denied my news story even once over these three years. Then why do I stand trial? I do not understand how I aided these organizations.”
The court did not lift the travel bans of Öğreten, Ömer Çelik and Metin Yoksu, however, it did lift the travel bans of Derya Okatan and Eray Sargın.
The 10th hearing of the trial was held on June 25th, 2020.
The hearing prosecutor demanded the continuation of the judicial control requirements of the defendants.
Tunca Öğreten stated that he had been working as a journalist for 17 years and that travel restrictions had a negative impact on his profession, and demanded that they be lifted.
Sargın said that his mobile phone, his mother’s phone, his computer, the computer of the newspaper he worked for, and his camera had been examined, revealing that he had not committed the crime attributed to him. Sargın said, “There are only claims, but no evidence. There is journalism here, but no justice for three years.” He demanded his acquittal.
In previous hearings, the court had requested information about another case filed against Metin Yoksu. It was stated that this new case, overseen by the Istanbul 32nd High Criminal Court, would be integrated to the current case file.
Özcan Kılıç, the lawyer of Yoksu, indicated that the charges in the two cases were the same. Kılıç demanded that Yoksu’s travel ban be lifted, and stated, “My client is being harassed constantly due to the judicial control requirement.”
The court did not lift the journalists’ overseas travel bans. At this hearing, it was seen that the panel of judges had changed. The court ruled that it was necessary to examine the file in order to decide whether to combine another file brought against the non-journalist defendant in this case with this file.
The 11th hearing has been scheduled for December 15th, 2020.
Press in Arrest is a database, monitoring, documentation and collective memory study of Press Research Association.
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