Journalist’s 52 years of prison risk for exposing state secrets prompts outcry

Journalists and politicians have criticized a jail sentence sought for journalist Mehmet Baransu who published classified documents from a 2004 National Security Council (MGK) meeting, saying that it has raised concerns about press freedom in Turkey.

“Lawsuits filed against Baransu and the prison term sought for him are unacceptable. It is a clear example of excess by our judiciary. A journalist is facing a lengthy prison term when he has done his duty of informing the public. This case clearly shows us that there’s no freedom of press or freedom of speech in Turkey,” Sibel Güneş, secretary general of the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC), told Today’s Zaman.

An İstanbul prosecutor is seeking 52 years in prison for Taraf daily columnist Mehmet Baransu for “exposing state secrets.” A rapid investigation launched against Baransu for publishing a confidential MGK document that mentioned a planned crackdown on faith-based groups — mainly the Hizmet movement, inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen — in the country has drawn condemnation and strong criticism.

The indictment, completed by the Anadolu Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, pointed out that Baransu’s report published on Nov. 28, 2013 in the Taraf daily exposed state secrets and thus requires severe punishment. Government officials did not deny the authenticity of the documents but argued that no action was taken to implement the policy prescriptions indicated therein.

Stressing that high-profile names from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) confirmed the information published by Baransu, TGC’s Güneş said: “In this regard, the investigation launched against Baransu is baseless; it’s far from reality. We are calling on the government to lift the repression faced by the media.”

The prison term sought for Baransu is an intimidation against all journalists in Turkey, according to Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a lawyer and Today’s Zaman columnist. “More than 50 years in prison is sought for a journalist just because of what he reported; this is appalling. If he were a spy and had sold the information to another state, such a prison term would not be sought. This is terrifying with regard to freedom of speech,” he said. The prosecution of Baransu also violates the international conventions that Turkey is signatory to, Cengiz said, adding that publishing secret documents is a part of journalism.

“The main duty of a journalist is to publish documents that are newsworthy. There are some exceptions regarding hate speech and so on, but journalists can publish any documents they have obtained; maybe those who leak such documents can face prosecution. But if [prosecutors] ask journalists why they publish that information, they will criminalize journalistic activities. I regard this prosecution as an assault against journalism and a threat to all journalists,” he said.

Oktay Ekşi, a former journalist and an İstanbul deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said that a prison term sought for a journalist who published secret documents clearly shows Turkey’s low democratic standards.

“In properly functioning democracies where the rule of law is in place, journalists do not face prison terms when they publish information defined as state secrets, such as WikiLeaks documents or [National Security Association] NSA files obtained by Edward Snowden. In this sense, attempts to imprison a journalist who revealed a decision taken at a MGK meeting shows where Turkey is in the world regarding democracy and justice. The governing party has brought Turkey to this point, this is their shame,” Ekşi told Today’s Zaman.

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Ankara deputy Özcan Yeniçeri also slammed the jail sentence sought for Baransu, saying that all news reports criticizing the government are counted as criminal activity by the judiciary. “If there’s a crime, it can be prosecuted. But a 52-year prison term is an open intimidation. They say that revealing state secrets is a criminal activity. But let’s remember what pro-government journalists did during the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials; they published even more secret information. Is exposing secret information a criminal activity only for Baransu?” Yeniçeri told Today’s Zaman.

The prosecution of Baransu is designed to intimidate all journalists who might report the government’s wrongdoings, Yeniçeri added. “There’s no rule of law in Turkey anymore, there’s only the government’s law. This prosecution is an open intimidation designed to repress all publications critical of the government. Their main aim is to put limitations on the freedom of the press and freedom of speech,” he said.

Council of Media Ethics Chairman Halit Esendir, for his part, said that only those who leaked the secret documents can be prosecuted, not journalists.

“Any journalist who obtains such documents can publish them, even if they contain secret information. There are similar cases around the world, for example in the US. Publishing a secret document is not a criminal activity, and if leaking is an offense, then those who leaked are the ones who should be prosecuted,” Esendir said, adding that the lawsuit against Baransu is an open attack against press freedom.

Journalist Yavuz Baydar also finds the prosecution of Baransu unacceptable and against international conventions. Stressing that prosecution violates Article 90 of the Constitution which states that universal legal principles will be considered when domestic laws contradict universal law rulings, Baydar said: “Journalists are under the protection of Article 90 of the Constitution. This indictment violates Article 90. The state should find out who leaked the document, regardless of whether it is secret or not. But the state cannot stop the journalist doing his job, cannot threaten him and cannot put him into prison.”

Many journalists have lent their support to Baransu in messages on social media. Star daily columnist Mustafa Akyol wrote on his Twitter account: “In free countries, it cannot be an offense to ‘publish state secrets.’ I side with Baransu.”

BirGün daily columnist Can Dündar wrote: “A 52-year prison sentence has been sought for Baransu for ‘revealing information that should remain secret for the state’s benefit.’ What if the state’s advantage is our disadvantage?”

Posta daily columnist Nedim Şener wrote: “Seeking 52 years in prison for Mehmet Baransu is irrational and unacceptable. You cannot intimidate anybody. Publishing a document cannot be punished, otherwise somebody else will be punished as well.”

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About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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