Pressure on the critical and independent segments of Turkish media amounts on daily basis, by new prosecutions and accreditation bans.
Here are the latest developments in a compilation:
Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in Istanbul filed a criminal lawsuit against Harun Çümen, the responsible manager and legal representative of the owner of Zaman, Turkey’s largest daily, asking the court to sentence him to 17 years in prison for reporting on main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech about government corruption in Parliament.
The lawsuit alleged that by covering the opposition leader’s remarks in which he disclosed the contents of an alleged telephone conversation between then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his son, the newspaper violated the confidentiality and privacy of the communication. Çümen was also charged with being a member of an illegal group, though the name of the group was not specified.
The Bakırköy Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office on Monday informed Çümen that a lawsuit was launched against him over the newspaper’s reporting of Kılıçdaroğlu’s parliament speech during which he played the voice recordings that allegedly revealed that Erdoğan had instructed his son to hide large sums of money that were stashed in the family residence in İstanbul after a corruption investigation was made public on Dec. 17, 2013.
The Bakırköy Prosecutor’s decision to take legal action came after the Bakırköy 2nd Penal Court of Peace reversed the prosecutor’s initial decision to drop the investigation into the newspaper in May, citing a lack of legal grounds to pursue the complaint brought by Erdoğan’s lawyers Ali Özkaya, Muammer Cemaloğlu and Burhanettin Sevencan against Çümen.
The system of the Penal Court of Peace is already controversial in Turkey as it was hastily introduced following graft probes that went public on Dec. 17 and 25 implicating senior government officials. These courts are granted extraordinary powers such as carrying out detentions, arrests, seizures of goods and search warrants without consulting with any other judiciary organs. In addition to these far reaching powers, it is also believed that the judges and prosecutors who were given positions in the new court were chosen on the basis of their loyalty to the government.
Hearing the appeal filed by Erdoğan’s lawyers against the initial decision to discontinue the investigation into the newspaper, the Bakırköy 2nd Penal Court of Peace instructed the prosecutor to file a lawsuit and let the court decide on the evidence.
The case against Çümen will be heard in Bakırköy 2nd Court of First Instance.
Speaking to Today’s Zaman, Çümen stressed that besides Zaman daily, all other prominent Turkish media outlets, including the Hurriyet, Milliyet and Ortadoğu dailies as well as other renowned news agencies reported Erdoğan’s conversation with his son as played by Kılıçdaroğlu in Parliament.
He went on to say that the case filed against him is filled with false and groundless allegations. “This is an arbitrary legal action to intimidate free press. Reporting statements made by the main opposition party leader in Parliament about events that have implications for the public is just a routine job of the press media,” said Çümen.
Çümen’s lawyer Hasan Günaydın said that leveling accusations against someone without grounding them on proper and concrete facts cannot be reconciled with a politician who is assuming a prominent public office. “Accusing someone of being a member of an illegal organization due to his coverage of parliamentary discussion is not a valid matter to be debated by the judiciary.”
A voice recording leaked in February, which allegedly features then-Prime Minister Erdoğan instructing his son to dispose of vast amounts of cash amid an ongoing corruption operation, sent shockwaves through the country, with opposition parties calling for the government to resign.
The Prime Ministry released a strongly worded statement on the leakage of recordings, claiming that the voice recording is spliced and “completely false.” The Prime Ministry vowed in the statement to sue those who orchestrated this “dirty plot.”
Main opposition party leader Kılıçdaroğlu called on Erdoğan to send the voice recordings to internationally reputable labs to assess the authenticity of the voice recordings if he was “honest.” Erdoğan never responded to Kılıçdaroğlu’s demand.
The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahçeli called the voice recording “mind-blowing” and urged top prosecutors and other judicial bodies to launch an investigation into the prime minister. He said Erdoğan should “not even think about” escaping blame by claiming that the tapes had been edited.
The court ruling to initiate legal action against Çümen has drawn the ire of the public as non-governmental organizations raise concerns over the increasing restrictions on the freedom of the press.
Speaking to Today’s Zaman, Turkish Journalists Federation (TGF) Chairman Atilla Sertel lashed out at the government, saying that the intensity of the government’s crackdown on the press is unprecedented in Turkey’s history. “This judicial proceeding is itself an action of intimidating press… If an individual, a party chairman speaks to the public, this naturally becomes a topic for a news report. How could it be deemed an unlawful act? Can there be such a non-sense? If they [the government] want to get rid of dissident reporters then let the government have all the dissidents executed.”
Speaking to Today’s Zaman, the President of the Press Council Pınar Türenç called the legal action brought against Çümen as an effort to deter the press media from reporting freely.
“We see the intimidation of the press through judicial means as a dangerous development. We believe that an independent judiciary will deliver a judgment in favor of press freedoms,” Türenç said.
Another prosecutor from the Anatolia Courthouse has opened a criminal case against well-known Turkish journalist Mehmet Baransu for “insulting and blackmailing” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan via Twitter, the Turkish media reported on Wednesday.
Prosecutor Sıddık Çinko, who wrote the indictment against Baransu, stated that President Erdoğan’s lawyer filed a criminal complaint claiming that Baransu shared several posts on Twitter insulting and blackmailing Erdoğan when the president was prime minister. According to the indictment, Baransu did not go to the prosecutor’s office to testify, though he was summoned. The indictment also featured Twitter posts made by Baransu. The prosecutor seeks a prison sentence against Baransu between two and seven years, as per the Turkish Penal Code (TCK).
Baransu was briefly detained on Aug. 9 while he was covering a government-initiated operation against the police. He had written on Twitter that four police officers forcefully dragged and beat him; he also shared photos of his bruised arms.
In March, an audio recording leaked on YouTube featured an alleged conversation between former İstanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu and Interior Minister Efkan Ala — who was the Prime Ministry undersecretary at the time. The voice allegedly belonging to Ala could be heard telling Mutlu to order a raid on Baransu’s house and arrest him for publishing state documents related to a corruption case.
“Detain him immediately. He is committing a crime and nothing has been done to him. As long as he continues to publish the documents, it is impossible to talk about the existence of a state,” the alleged voice of Ala was heard saying in the audio clip.
In a related development, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stopped sending Foreign Ministry statements and phone text messages to a number of media outlets known to be critical of the government, including the Today’s Zaman and Zaman dailies as well as the private Cihan news agency.
The ministry excluded all the journalists affiliated with these media outlets from the statement distribution list as of Nov. 3.
An email inquiry sent to the ministry’s information desk by a Today’s Zaman correspondent last week asking whether the ministry has deliberately excluded certain correspondents from the information list remains unanswered.
An official from the ministry who asked not to be named could not give an answer when asked whether the ministry is applying a media ban on Today’s Zaman or not. Asked if the Today’s Zaman correspondents will be turned away if they come to attend an event at the Foreign Ministry, the official said he does not know and that it is not up to him to determine that.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tanju Bilgiç has not been answering phone calls from Today’s Zaman for months.
Bilgiç, who took office in January 2014, has held only one “press conference,” on Nov. 4, but neglected to invite a number of media outlet representatives, including from Today’s Zaman.
Correspondents from Zaman and Cihan were stopped in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building by ministry personnel. When a Zaman correspondent asked the personnel who it was that had ordered them to stop the journalists, they replied they were following the orders of their superiors and the state.
Withholding press accreditation to bar journalists from attending events appears to have become common practice in Turkey. Several media outlets were not granted permission to cover President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inauguration ceremony on Aug. 28, for example. The Prime Ministry and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are the most recent government institutions to have imposed an accreditation ban on certain media outlets that are not pro-government.
A journalist from Cihan was asked on Monday to leave the hall where Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s wife, Sare Davutoğlu, was delivering a speech about women victimized by war.
A group of private security guards approached Cihan’s İlhan Çulha, took his microphone and asked him to leave the hall, reportedly to prevent him from asking questions.
Journalists from the Zaman Media Group, the İpek Media Group and Samanyolu were barred from entering the Prime Ministry building to attend a press briefing of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç after a Cabinet meeting on Nov. 3.
Previously, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) imposed a media accreditation ban on a number of outlets, including the Aydınlık, Birgün, Evrensel, Sözcü, Taraf, Yeni Asya and Yurt dailies, as well as broadcasters Halk TV, Hayat TV and Ulusal Kanal, preventing them from covering a ceremony on July 1 announcing then-Prime Minister Erdoğan’s candidacy for the seat of president.
Several journalist associations in Turkey, including the Diplomacy Correspondents Association (DMD), the Parliamentary Correspondents Association and the Economy Correspondents Association, and journalist unions issued a statement on Wednesday calling the government to end the bans.