Türkiye: Stop abusing criminal and anti-terrorism law to silence journalists

Türkiye: Stop abusing criminal and anti-terrorism law to silence journalists - Media

The judicial harassment of journalists in Türkiye continues to be used as a means to punish the independent media for their reporting 

In January 2024, ARTICLE 19 attended the hearings of documentary filmmaker and academic Sibel Tekin, journalist and editor of online newspaper Gerçek Gündem Furkan Karabay, and journalist and editor-in-chief of ANKA News Agency, Mansur Çelik, in Ankara. ARTICLE 19 has long been documenting and advocating against the misuse of the criminal provisions the defendants are accused of, respectively, ‘being a member of a terrorist organisation’,insulting a public official in relation to their duty’, and ‘disclosing the identity of officials on anti-terrorist duties and identifying such persons as targets’. In ARTICLE 19’s view, all three cases exhibit hallmarks of undue interference with the right to freedom of expression.  

We reiterate our concern about the increasing misuse of criminal provisions against journalists in Türkiye, and add that drawn-out legal proceedings take a great toll on journalists’ mental health, distract them from their journalistic work, and undermine their credibility. ARTICLE 19 calls for the immediate acquittal of Sibel Tekin and Furkan Karabay, and the acquittal of Mansur Çelik during the appeal phase. 

On 16 January, ARTICLE 19 attended a hearing of the trial of journalist Sibel Tekin who is charged with ‘being a member of a terrorist organisation’. The accusation stems from her filming personnel of a high-security prison as they awaited a service bus on 15 December 2022 while she was producing footage for a documentary. Her recording was reported to the police as suspicious. According to the indictment, the investigation against Tekin was initiated due to previous terrorist bombings in different cities, based on a suspicion that Tekin’s recording might be in preparation for something similar. Tekin’s home was raided the following day; electronics, books and other printed material were confiscated and Tekin was taken into custody, detained on 17 December 2022 and released on 30 January 2023. During the hearing on 16 January, Tekin and her lawyers objected to the ‘cache memory’ files found in Tekin’s computer being used as evidence against her, pointing out that cache memory data is data that is downloaded to one’s computer outside of one’s control when one goes on any website; and therefore Tekin cannot be held responsible for it. We support Tekin’s lawyers’ statement that prolonging a trial where immediate acquittal is possible violates the right to a fair trial. The trial was adjourned to 5 March 2024 as the prosecutor requested an inquiry into whether Türkiye’s National Intelligence Agency has any information on Tekin. 

Journalist Furkan Karabay’s hearing on charges of ‘insult’ against İrfan Fidan, Akın Gürlek and Hasan Yılmaz took place on 17 January. The charges stem from a thread Karabay published on X (formerly Twitter) on 22 June 2023, claiming that Deputy Ministers of Justice Akın Gürlek and Hasan Yılmaz made ‘scandalous judgments’ at the time when they held positions as judges in İstanbul. The tweets invoked some of the judgments in question and mentioned İrfan Fidan, Judge at the Constitutional Court, who was İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor at that time. Akın Gürlek and İrfan Fidan are public figures who receive extensive criticism by the media. Gürlek is known for having ruled for heavy prison sentences in several lawsuits closely followed by the public such as the Contemporary Lawyers Association (ÇHD) and Canan Kaftancıoğlu (then İstanbul Chair of the main opposition CHP) cases, and for disregarding the Constitutional Court ruling that the rights of Enis Berberoğlu had been violated. Fidan is known for having prepared the indictments for many high-profile cases, such as the cases in relation to the Gezi Park protests of 2013, and the Syrian Trucks case. Their appointment to, respectively, Deputy Minister of Justice and member of the Constitutional Court, was not without controversy. 

Furkan Karabay is currently facing severe judicial harassment, highlighted by repeated cases filed against him, and his recent arrest on 29 December 2023; he was released on 8 January 2024. Other ongoing cases against him include charges of ‘disclosing the identity of officials on anti-terrorist duties and identifying such persons as targets’ due to his reporting on the judgments in question and other allegations against İrfan Fidan. At the hearing for the ‘insulting a public official in relation to their duty’ case, which ARTICLE 19 observed, Karabay’s lawyer requested that investigation and trial documents from the cases mentioned in Karabay’s thread to be included in the present case as evidence to support his defence. The next hearing is scheduled for 3 April 2024. 

The hearing for journalist and editor-in-chief of ANKA News Agency Mansur Çelik’s trial for ‘disclosing the identity of officials on anti-terrorist duties or identifying such persons as targets’ took place on 18 January. The trial was initiated in response to an article by Çelik highlighting Judge Akın Gürlek’s role as the head of tribunal in numerous high-profile political cases related to freedom of expression, many of which ended in conviction. Çelik had prepared and read his own defence statement during the trial. He explained that the article in question consists of factual information all of which is publicly available, and therefore cannot constitute the crime he is charged with. 

In Turkish criminal law, there is a ‘delay of the pronouncement of the judgment’ option for first-time offenders, for when the verdict is under two years, where if the defendant does not commit another crime in the next five years after the pronouncement of the judgment is delayed, the case is dismissed. For this provision to be applied, however, defendants have to agree to its application before hearing the verdict about them, and when they agree they lose their right to appeal the verdict. The provision was annulled by the Constitutional Court in June 2023 as unconstitutional, particularly because its ‘arbitrary application’ was causing a ‘deterrent effect over primarily the right to freedom of expression’. The annulment will become effective starting 1 August 2024. When asked if he would like for this provision to be applied in his case Çelik refused, stating that accepting it would imply acceptance of guilt, and he is confident that his act does not constitute the crime. The judgment was then announced, and he received a six-month prison sentence. He plans to appeal. 

During the hearing, Çelik’s lawyer pointed out the failure of Article 6/1 of the Anti-Terrorism Law to clearly define who can be considered an ‘official on anti-terrorist duties’, which results in an overly broad interpretation of the term; claiming that judges working on anti-terror cases, like Gürlek in this particular case, do not qualify as such. The prosecutor agreed that the article’s lack of definition for an ‘official on anti-terrorist duties’ is problematic, and stated that ‘it is a matter of interpretation’ who qualifies.

ARTICLE 19 condemns judicial harassment of journalists in all its forms, and calls for the acquittal of all three defendants. We further call on Turkish authorities and the judiciary to refrain from abusing criminal and anti-terror legislation as a tool to apply pressure on journalists for simply doing their jobs as public watchdogs.