Arrests of journalists in Turkey must stop

Arrests of journalists in Turkey must stop

The Cumhuriyet case once again showed that the trial of journalists and writers in Turkey must come to an end in order to avoid more injustice at home and disgrace in the world.

It is an escape point or an excuse for governments - currently the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government - to say the political authority has nothing to do with it and that it is totally up to “independent courts.” That is correct only on paper and it has only been correct on paper not only under the state of emergency declared by the government after the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt, or under the AK Parti rule since 2002; the courts have been under the influence of the dominant political atmosphere for decades.

There is actually no article in the penal code that rules journalists should be arrested and brought to the court as such; it leaves the initiative to judges.

But here is the mechanism on how things work in practice: When the police submits a file to a prosecutor, saying that a certain person or a group of people are suspects of a terrorist activity or conspiring against the government, the prosecutor finds himself, or herself, before three options: Reject the file, say that he/she could start an investigation if necessary, or thank the police and say he/she would start a preliminary investigation by taking into account the police information, do not bother and open a probe totally based on police files.

If the prosecutor chooses the first or second options, he/she could well be under suspicion by the police or the Justice Ministry on whether he/she has links with subversive groups or is trying to cover up an investigation for their own interest; at least it might not be good for their future careers since the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK), which is in charge of promotions and disciplinary actions, is headed by the Justice Minister and the President who have been given direct or indirect influence in appointing members to that board as a result of the April 16 referendum, which also granted additional powers to the President.

Then the prosecutor submits the investigation file more or less based on the police reports sent to the court and depending on the political atmosphere - not necessarily by taking orders from the upper echelons – they could and most of the time would demand an arrest of the suspects regardless of the existence of any solid evidence. The judge, or judges, can either examine the prosecutors’ file against the evidence submitted and reject the demand of arrest or accept it right away, again to be on the safe side.

A number of absurd cases have been observed in recent trials. For example, in the recent daily Cumhuriyet case, the first prosecutor from the Istanbul 27th Criminal Court had asked for the arrest of all defendants, the journalists working for Turkey’s oldest and center-left newspaper who are accused of helping two different terrorist organizations: The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt.

The judge arrested 11 of the total 19. But in the meantime, an investigation was opened against the prosecutor, Murat İnam. He was dismissed from his job and removed from the case on suspicion that he was a member of the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization [FETÖ]” in the judiciary. But as our colleagues were kept in prison for 267 days before appearing in court for the first time on July 24, İnam has not been arrested despite the ongoing case into him. Bülent Utku, a lawyer of Cumhuriyet, who is one of the arrested defendants, said during his defense that the new prosecutor of the case, Hasan Bölükbaşı, was the same prosecutor who opened investigations against Cumhuriyet in 2013 because of its publications against Gülenists. Bölükbaşı then told the judge that the detail had no link with the ongoing case.

The fact that the prosecutor had asked the judge to keep journalists Kadri Gürsel, Ahmet Şık and Murat Sabuncu in prison and for the release of five others on condition of judicial control endorses the belief that the arrests of journalists are somehow considered a way of punishment, regardless of the ruling. Former President Abdullah Gül reiterated on July 28 that he was also against journalists being tried under arrest, something main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been saying for years. 

It is hard to break this political-psychological atmosphere in the judiciary unless the political actors, from the President to the Justice Minister, make remarks to underline the principle that unless there is solid evidence of crime, the journalists and writers should not be tried under arrest.