Journalists arrested over anti-refugee messages released pending trial

Journalist Batuhan Çolak

An Ankara court has released 10 people pending trial, including four journalists, who were arrested last year due to social media posts allegedly targeting Syrian refugees in the country, the Voice of America (VOA) Turkish edition reported on Wednesday.

The Ankara 7th Criminal Court of First Instance released the 10 defendants, who are accused of “fomenting hatred and enmity among the public” and “spreading disinformation,” at the first hearing on Wednesday.

Ajans Muhbir news platform’s executives Serkan Kafkas and Süha Çardaklı in addition to its editors Serdar Sönmez and Ümit Yasin Perinçek were among the defendants released.

Batuhan Çolak, editor-in-chief of the online news outlet Aykırı, and Çardaklı were arrested as part of an investigation carried out by the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in September after they were targeted by media organizations close to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Çolak was released on October 27. Kafkas, Sönmez and Perinçek were arrested on October 20.

Aykırı news platform editor Furkan Uludağ, who was also arrested on October 20, was released on November 10.

The two news platforms have a wide readership on X, with Aykırı having as many as 750,000 followers. They also cover news about refugees in the country and have exhibited an anti-refugee stance.

The trial, which will continue with the second hearing on May 20, includes charges against 24 people other than journalists.

Çolak’s lawyer, Ömer Furkan Dağ, spoke to VOA Turkish about the journalists’ release, saying that his client’s imprisonment on baseless charges is an intimidation tactic involving the judicial system.

“We believe that a serious operation is being conducted against the nationalist segment [of society]. My client is solely engaged in journalism,” he added.

The hearing was also followed by some officials and lawmakers from the nationalist opposition İYİ (Good) Party.

Ümit Özdağ, leader of the far-right and anti-refugee Victory Party (ZP), said in a statement following the hearing that putting people in jail due to their anti-refugee stance is “unacceptable.”

The ZP leader added that they will continue to fight against what he calls the “silent invasion” of over 13 million refugees and undocumented individuals in Turkey.

According to UNHCR, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide. The country is currently home to some 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees.

Refugees in Turkey are frequently targeted by Turkish politicians, who hold them responsible for the social and economic problems in the country. The anti-Syrian rhetoric has gained momentum, especially during the May 14 elections and the May 28 presidential runoff.

Rights groups routinely accuse the Turkish government of trying to keep the press under control by imprisoning journalists, eliminating media outlets, overseeing the purchase of media brands by pro-government conglomerates and using regulatory authorities to exert financial pressure, especially since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan survived a failed coup in July 2016.

Turkey is ranked 165th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ latest press freedom index.

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