Turkish Journalists Face Trial in Dire Political and Legal Circumstances

This story is a follow-up to an August 2016 story written about Tunca Öğreten before his detainment.

On Dec. 25, 2016, Turkish journalist Tunca Öğreten and two of his colleagues were detained by police. After nearly a year in detainment, they are to face the Turkish courts on Oct. 24 on “anti-state” and “terrorism” charges for reporting on corruption within Turkey’s government.

By the time Öğreten’s trial date hits, he’ll have been imprisoned for 303 days. For seven months he was jailed without knowing what he was charged with. When the prosecution filed their indictment in July, they claimed Öğreten’s reporting included “state secrets depending on circumstances.”

The Story

Öğreten, editor of the online publication Diken, wrote an investigative story in September 2016 on the leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s minister of energy, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law. These emails, over 57,000 of which are available on Wikileaks, revealed that Albayrak was “one of the partners” in Powertrans, a company that was given special permissions by the government and has links to ISIS’ oil trade.

Powertrans was essentially given a monopoly. According to Foreign Policy, “The Turkish government banned road and railway transportation of oil in or out of the country, but made an exception for Powertrans” in November 2011. They also had allegedly “mixed ISIS-produced oil into their shipments to Turkey.”

How far did Albayrak’s ties with Powertrans go? According to Öğreten’s report and the leaked emails, Albayrak was asked for candidates’ hiring approval to work at the company and whether or not food should be given to workers.

The leaks came from a group known as RedHack, a “communist hacktivist group” that has targeted the government in the past. Redhack notified a group of journalists of the hack via Twitter direct message, resulting in the reporting corroborated by 16 years worth of Albayrak’s emails.

The Charges

Öğreten and the others are currently charged with a “mismash (sic) of accusations,” according to Efe Kerem Sozeri, a Turkish writer and researcher now based in the Netherlands. Due to the fact that Öğreten was contacted by RedHack, he is charged with associating himself with the DHKP-C, an armed leftist group in Turkey. The prosecution has argued that since RedHack is connected to the DHKP-C, and RedHack contacted Öğreten, then Öğreten is connected to the DHKP-C.

When the journalism itself is seen as a threat, it is not hard for an oppressive government to invent crimes for them,” wrote Sozeri in an email to MediaFile.

The indictment goes further, claiming that Öğreten also committed crimes for the FETÖ/PDY, or the Fethullah Gülen movement. Their only piece of evidence is Öğreten’s previous work at the “pro-Gülen” paper Taraf, which has since been shuttered by the government.

According to Özgür Öğret, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Turkey representative based in Istanbul, Öğreten’s indictment also links him to MLKP, or the “Marxist Leninist Communist Party,” and ISIS.

“Turkey has very loose, very flexible terrorism law. Therefore, a tweet can be terror activity, or attending a protest can be terror activity,” Öğret said in an interview with MediaFile. “Supporting a terror organization without being a member results in the same punishment as being a member.”

The Courts

The laws that allow the Turkish government to have this kind of scope and power over critical media have been on the books for years. Loose terrorism laws predated President Erdoğan and the failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016 that threatened Erdoğan’s government. But since the coup attempt, there has been a “major escalation” from the government, and things have gotten dire for journalists in Turkey.

“Things have gotten worse in the past 15 months. There is less separation of powers in Turkey between the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch,” said Nate Schenkkan, project director focusing on Central Europe and Central Asia at Freedom House, in an interview with MediaFile. “The judicial branch is subordinate to the executive. There have been instances where judges just copy and paste whatever the prosecution says into the charge sheets.”

Judges and lawyers are also subject to the culture of fear that has enveloped Turkey. After the coup attempt, the Erdoğan government purged many within their own ranks in its declared state of emergency, which has now been extended four times. According to Freedom House, “over 2,700 more judges and prosecutors were dismissed or arrested” in the wake of the coup. Fair judges, unbiased prosecution lawyers, and proper defense attorneys have become a rarity in the country.

This all contributes to a broken court system that fails to uphold the rule of law, and only upholds and enforces the bidding of those in power, leaving journalists like Öğreten extremely vulnerable.

“[W]e are not experiencing a justice system here. This is a political trial, initiated by the government,” wrote Sozeri. “Therefore it won’t be resolved in law, but will be determined by the political pressure, especially the international pressure on Turkey’s ruling party.”

MediaFile has reached out to the Embassy of Turkey in D.C. for comment. At the time of this writing, they have not responded.

The Media Landscape

The post-coup media crackdown and government purge have left a dismal media landscape in Turkey. Moderate outlets, or the “middle of Turkish media,” have been “seized, taken over, sold to pro-government oligarchs … or have been totally cowed into submission,” according to Schenkkan. Critical voices are all but gone, resulting in a “Not Free” press score for Turkey by Freedom House.

“It’s a very barren landscape; scorched earth,” said Schenkkan.

The only institutions left standing are large but weak organizations, or fringe outlets that have too small a circulation and credibility to be considered as a threat to the government.

“CNN Türk (CNN’s arm in Turkey) used to be CNN-ish, but it has been really denuded. The nightly news is a government highlight reel, with politicians performing ribbon cuttings and celebrating holidays,” said Schenkkan. “Marginal outlets are also left, but no one would read them five years ago. They have become the refuge. People write there, but there is no large audience and no money. The brand is really far left so people don’t trust them; similarly with far-right nationalist outlets.”

The remaining media outposts, where people can still write, are located primarily online, but the wide dissemination of any important or critical works to the public is highly unlikely.

“TV remains the number one news source for Turkey,” said Öğret. “For people who do not get their news online, they only hear what government wants them to hear.”

Tuesday’s Trial

It’s hard to say what decision will be handed down on Tuesday. Experts have asserted that it is likely that no decision will be reached on the 24th, and a fair trial will probably not take place. Given the situation in the courts and the political climate, the mood seems hostile towards journalists like Öğreten and the two other journalists that stand trial with him.

If the judge considers the lack of evidence in the indictment, and the absurd links the prosecutor tried to frame, they should be released at the first hearing,” wrote Sozeri. “They should never [have] been arrested in the first place with this.”

According to CPJ’s 2016 prison census, there are 81 journalists behind bars in Turkey — one of them being Öğreten. He gave an interview from prison in early October, and said that he was not surprised when he was detained by authorities.

“For me, it was not unexpected to be arrested,” said Öğreten. “However, it was funny to live with it because of documents shared with 7 billion people through Wikileaks.”

In the interview, he described prison life, how he missed his wife Minez (with whom he has exchanged “close to 120 letters”) and how he still stands by his piece and his role as a journalist.

“It was very dangerous to work in this land for every journalist who pursued truthfully,” said Öğreten.

Many before Tunca have been detained and imprisoned — and unfortunately, it looks like many after him will be as well — for doing their jobs.

“Turkish journalists, they go to prison, and many of them have been to jail before,” said Schenkkan. “They don’t quit. You have to really respect it.”

This article has been updated to include a redacted version of the indictment document to protect the personal information of those involved.

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