Istanbul court accuses three journalists of "revealing information" about a Turkish intelligence agent killed in Libya

The price of journalism in Turkey: up to 19 years in prison for allegedly "revealing state secrets"

photo_camera AP/MEHEMET GUZEL - A woman holds a poster saying "Press Freedom is the Guarantee of Democracy" in front of a court in Istanbul on Wednesday, June 24, 2020

In Turkey, at least 85% of the national media are owned by pro-government entrepreneurs and follow the official line. However, the remaining 15% live every day in hostile territory, where harassment of independent media and journalists or those who do not follow the regime's line is a constant. In this scenario, a court in Istanbul on Wednesday released three journalists who had been held in custody since March for allegedly revealing state secrets about a Turkish intelligence agent who was killed in Libya earlier this year. The same court has maintained provisional detention for three other people accused of the same crime. 

The defendants include Huyla Kilinc, Baris Pehlivan and Baris Terkoglu of the ultra-nationalist news website Odatv; Ferhat Celik and Aydin Keser of the pro-Kurdish newspaper Yeni Yasam and Murat Agirel, a columnist for the nationalist newspaper Yenicag. The six detained journalists face eight to 19 years of pressure for alleged violations of state security-related reporting laws. In addition, a seventh journalist in Germany is being tried on these same charges 'in absentia'. "They are doing what they know best: using the law to silence us. In response, we will do what we do best: journalism. We will pick up where we left off," said Baris Terkoglu after his release. 

Los manifestantes sostienen pancartas que dicen "Murat Agirel no está solo" y "queremos justicia para Murat" fuera de la corte, en Estambul, el miércoles 24 de junio de 2020

After a lengthy trial, Turkey has released Baris Terkoglu, Aydin Keser and Ferhat Celik, while maintaining pre-trial detention for the other three journalists until the next scheduled audience on 9 September. "With these non-existent charges, I have been held alone in a prison cell for 120 days," Agirel lamented in his defence. "The charges against me are not based on tangible evidence and are not thorough," he said, as reported by the online newspaper Al Monitor. 

During the court trial, all the journalists defended their innocence, stressing that they were only doing their job as journalists and that the information they had published was already on social networks. "The large number of trials against Turkish journalists shows the authorities' contempt and hostility towards the media. This situation is even more unacceptable during the coronavirus pandemic," said the coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in Europe and Central Asia, Gulnoza Said, in New York. "The Turkish authorities must stop trying journalists for their reporting; if they do not drop the charges against members of the press, they must at least ensure that journalists can go to court safely," he added. 

La gente protesta por la libertad de prensa, fuera del tribunal, en Estambul, el miércoles 24 de junio de 2020

The six defendants have been on preventive detention since they were arrested in March for "working in a systematic and coordinated manner" to reveal information about the intelligence officer who lost his life in Libya. Violence and instability have become a constant in Libya following the agreement signed last November between Turkey and the National Accord Government (GNA). Within the framework of this security and economic cooperation agreement, the country presided by Erdogan has intensified its presence in the North African country, sending hundreds of mercenaries and dozens of shipments of military material. This intervention has given Ankara a key position in the process of resolving the Libyan conflict. 

The CPJ representative in Turkey explained that the various political inclinations of the journalists on trial "are sufficient evidence" that they did not collaborate in this conspiracy to "undermine the operations of the state. She has also stressed - in statements to Al Monitor - that "the Prosecutor's Office has not provided evidence of the alleged cooperation". "The trial is a good example of how Turkish authorities want a unique voice in the media that has nothing but official statements in the news. The only thing these journalists have in common is that they work in independent media critical of the government. That is what is being judged today," he said. 

La gente sostiene una pancarta mientras se reúne para denunciar el arresto de uno de los dos periodistas, Muyesser Yildiz, coordinador de noticias del sitio de noticias en línea de OdaTV, durante una manifestación en Ankara el 18 de junio de 2020

The deputy director of the International Press Institute (IPI) has followed this same rhetoric, noting that "the charges against the defendants are absurd". "These charges indicate that Turkey's attempts to curb press freedom are not diminishing and that journalists who report critically on sensitive issues continue to risk being arbitrarily arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned," he told Al Monitor. 

Trials of journalists have resumed in the country after a three-month suspension caused by the coronavirus pandemic. On 17 June, a court in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakır acquitted Yeni Yaşam editor Semiha Alankuş on charges of membership in a terrorist organisation. On the same day, a court in the same city sentenced Beritan Canözer, a journalist with the pro-Kurdish news website Jin News, to one year, 10 months and 15 days in prison for "making propaganda for a terrorist organization" in his media. 

Ozgur Ozel, vicepresidente del grupo del Partido Popular Republicano, se une a una manifestación que denuncia la detención de uno de los dos periodistas, Muyesser Yildiz, coordinador de noticias del sitio de noticias en línea de OdaTV, en Ankara el 18 de junio de 2020

In this scenario, Erol Onderoglu, RSF's representative in Turkey believes that "as the financial crisis worsens as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the government seems to show signs of weakness, we are seeing increasing repression in the media that aims to turn the official line into a monopoly". "Without democracy and an independent media regulatory system, this repression could end up destroying Turkey's already fragile journalistic pluralism," he said.  Turkey is ranked 154th in the World Press Freedom Index.  

Repression of the media in Turkey intensified after the 2016 coup d'état, with newspapers subsequently closed and dozens of journalists convicted, mainly on charges of links with "terrorist movements", both the armed group Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Islamist brotherhood of preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating the July 2016 uprising.