In the most bizarre case ever seen in Turkey against 29 indicted journalists, Turkish prosecutor cited Tweets and Retweets amounting legitimate criticisms as evidence for terror even in cases where the original author was not even charged or probed for posting the Tweet.
All Twitter messages that were included in the court file have nothing to do with terror or violence but rather involved with legitimate criticism and dissent. In some cases where journalists unequivocally condemned terror and coup in their Twitter messages, prosecutor appear to be making a suggestion that these should not be taken at the face value.
Among so called evidence of crime included Tweet and Retweet of messages written by linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) lawmakers. In one instance the prosecutor even described a Tweet explaining TV satellite frequencies as criminal evidence in the indictment.
In the 196-page indictment filed by public prosecutor Murat Çağlak, journalists were accused of establishing a terror organization, administering it and attempting to oust the government. To support these farcical allegations, the prosecutor included critical Tweets and Retweet messages journalists posted on their social media accounts.
Journalist Abdullah Kılıç, former managing editor at HaberTürk daily, made a comment on BBC Turkish Twitter message that was shared on March 15, 2016 from @bbcturkce account which reported The Times’ interview with Cemil Bayık, one of the commanders of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who said ‘they wanted to topple [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and the [ruling Justice and Development Party] AKP [government]”. Kılıç criticized Bayık’s remarks, writing in Tweet that “We won’t let democracy strangled by a terror organization.” The PKK listed as terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Yet, the commentary critical of the PKK commander’s remark and supportive of democracy was cited by Turkish prosecutor as criminal offense that linked the journalists to a terror group.
“BLACK PROPAGANDA WITH NOAM CHOMSKY ON THE BEHALF OF TERROR GROUP”
Another journalist Ali Akkuş, an editor at large at Zaman daily, one-time largest national newspaper in Turkey before the government seized on March 4, 2016, was accused of being a member of terror group because he Retweeted a colleague’s critical Twitter message. On June 20, 2016, Kazım Güleçyüz, editor-in-chief of Yeni Asya daily, wrote in his Twitter account that “Another one from already dwindling alternative media channels would be killed, wouldn’t it? Shame…” The message was criticizing Turkish government’s unlawful takeover of media companies, removing TV networks from state-run satellite operators and revoking broadcast licenses. Akkuş Retweeted this message and that was included in the indictment against him as criminal evidence.
Another message by Akkuş that was included in the case was his Retweeting a message posted by veteran journalist Hasan Cemal on May 30, 2016 in which journalist shared an article by his colleague Mümtezar Türköne, a professor of political science, author and journalist who was detained in late July 2017. In the article, Türköne was questioning the decision by the National Security Council (MGK) that declared Gülen movement, a civic movement inspired the US-based Turkish Muslim intellectual Fethullah Gülen, as terror group without any evidence linking the group to violence or terror. Gülen has been a vocal critic of Erdogan on corruption in the government and aiding and abetting armed Jihadists in Syria. Akkuş’s Retweet of a journalist colleague’s message was deemed as criminal offense by the prosecutor.
The prosecutor also included Akkuş’s Retweet of message by critical TV network Can Erzincan that called on viewers on June 20, 2016 to protest government’s unlawful decision to remove the broadcasting station from the government-run satellite operator. Despite protests, the government dropped Can Erzincan from satellite line-up and later shut down the network altogether.
Akkuş also Retweeted critical messages posted on June 24, 2016 by the main opposition political party deputy Veli Ağbaba, who lambasted the government for media takeovers saying that the government trustees appointed to seized media outlets were given lavish salaries and entrusted to force seized firms into bankruptcy. Akkuş Retweeted these messages and prosecutor pointed out at these as evidence of crimes.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre evidence in the indictment against journalist is Akkuş’s Tweet message which quoted Noam Chomsky on Dec.16, 2015 as saying that the coup against media is an indication of regress in Turkey. The prosecutor described these critical Tweets and Retweet messages as ‘black propaganda” on behalf of a terror group.
Atilla Taş, a singer and journalist who is in pre-trial detention, was also accused of similar charges over his messages on Twitter. On May 27, 2016, Taş wrote on Twitter vouching for his editor-in-chief in Meydan daily, Levent Kenez, saying that he is a true gentleman, honest, kind, and friend. Kenez was detained in the aftermath of the failed coup in July 15, 2016, over a headline story questioning the coup attempt but let go. Meydan was shut down by the government and an arrest warrant issued against Kenez.
Another indicted journalist, Bülent Ceyhan who worked as a court reporter for HaberTürk and Millet dailies in İstanbul, was also accused of terror charges based on his Retweet of messages that were critical of Turkish government’s alleged links with Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). On July 6, 2016, Ceyhan shared a message by a Twitter user known by the handle @yazar212 who wrote “He is revealing how the AKP allowed ISIL [to operate] by documents. That is why they are afraid [of him]. #AKPninKorkusuErenErdem”.
TERROR THROUGH SHARING MESSAGES OF CHP LAWMAKERS
The message was about CHP lawmaker Eren Erdem’s public statements showing how the government looked the other way on ISIL militants operating in Turkey. Erdem angered the government with his revelations on links between ISIL and Turkish government. Ceyhan was one of 987 people who Retweeted the same message yet he was singled out from the crowd as part of escalating government crackdown on critical and independent journalists.
Bünyamin Köseli, a reporter with Aksiyon, Turkey’s largest newsweekly until it was shut down by the government, was charged under anti-terror laws because of his critical messages on Twitter. On March 12, 2016, Köseli shared a tweet message posted by a user named @DrSteveneu who wrote “humanitarian aid that kills humans! Aids that leave children orphans. You are murderers of hundreds of thousands.”.The message was criticizing Turkish government for sending heavy arms to Jihadists in Syria that was exposed when investigators intercepted Syria-bound trucks full of arms in January 2014 on the border province of Turkey. The government claimed the shipment was humanitarian aids for refugees yet the evidence in the form of photos and video footages revealed it was heavy arms. Prosecutor claimed Köseli tried to portray Turkish government as aiding to ISIL by sharing this Tweet message with his followers on Twitter.
Cemal Kalyoncu, also reporter with Aksiyon magazine, was also charged for sharing a Tweet message. On July 17, 2016, Kalyonu Retweeted a message written by a user @yenergunes who wrote “internet access to [online news portal] web sites Medyascope, Gazeteport, Rotahaber, ABC Gazetesi & Karşı Gazete were severed [by government].” Kalyoncu shared this message with followers. The prosecutor claimed these critical news portals were used for the purposes of what he called as terror group for the Gülen movement. The irony is that none of these portals have any affiliation with the movement but rather seen as critical on their editorial lines toward the government.
CONGRATULATION MESSAGE AS A TERROR ACT
Another criminal evidence against Kalyoncu is the congratulatory message he wrote for his journalist colleague Murat Tokay who got a job in a national daily Yarına Bakış, one of the critical newspapers in Turkey that was also shut down last summer by the government. Kalyoncu praised Tokay on June 27, 2016, for landing an interview with Ece Temelkuran, author and journalist, and starting in a new job in the daily. In the interview, Temelkuran criticized the government’s crackdown on critics to silence them all and lambasted witch-hunt against Gülen movement. The prosecutor mentioned Kalyoncu’s congratulation message for the colleague as an indication of crime.
A young investigative journalist Cihan Acar was mentioned in the indictment because he protested the government’s unlawful takeover of Zaman. Acar who worked for Bugün daily, also shut down by the government, posted a series of Tweet messages with a hashtag “#ZamanSusturulamaz [ZamanCannotBeSilenced]
Cuma Ulus, managing editor at Millet daily which was seized and later shut down by the government, faces similar charges for sharing Twitter messages. For example, on July 17, 2016, Ulus Retweeted a message posted by critical network Can Erzincan TV which announced to the public that the satellite feed for the network was unlawfully cut by state-run satellite operator Türksat. Ulus also shared tweet messages posted on the same day by a lawyer Günay Yılmaz who wrote coup plotters must be identified and their links must be discovered. The lawyer criticized the government for moving with the purges of members of judiciary and armed services who are staunchly opposed to coup but dismissed on the pretext of coup charges.
SAYING ‘I AM A JOURNALIST” IS A CRIME
Prosecutor included Retweet messages on July 11, 2016 by Ulus who shared independent news portal P24’s campaign to support journalists who were being tried with a hashtag “#BenGazeteciyim #GazetecilikSuçDeğildir [#IamJournalist #Journalismisnotcrime] as evidence of membership to a terror group. Ulus Retweeted a message by veteran journalist Derya Sazak on July 8, 2016 in which he slammed criticisms against exiled journalists who faced arrest warrants. That was also included in the indictment.
A Tweet message by detained journalist Emre Soncan, defense specialist correspondent who worked for Zaman, made its way into the indictment as crime. Soncan commented on May 10, 2016 article by columnist Mümtazer Türköne who wrote that right to dissent and resist without resorting to any violence is not only a legitimate right but also a moral responsibility. Soncan’s comment clearly refused the violence but prosecutor listed this message as evidence of terror.
On Feb. 25, 2016, Soncan hailed the Constitutional Court’s judgement that ruled for rights violations in the arrest of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, top editors of Cumhuriyet daily, over a headline story that exposed Turkish government’s illegal arms shipments to Jihadists in Syria. He wrote on Twitter that “I’m very happy…. Wishing to hear good news about [jailed journalists] Karaca, Baransu and other colleagues as well.” The prosecutor listed this message as evidence of terror.
Habib Güler, a journalist who covered the main opposition party CHP for Zaman daily for years, is also among those whose Twitter messages were deemed as evidence of terrorism. On May 27, 2016, a date that corresponded to the anniversary of military coup in 1960, Güler said he condemned all coup plotters and injustices perpetrated during the coups. For Turkish prosecutor, this was the evidence for terror.
Güler also posted a message on May 16, 2016 stating that “those who are accused for news articles must be tried without pre-trial detention. The threat of detention silences reporters and muzzles facts #BaransuTutuksuzYargılansın .” He was advocating for the release of Mehmet Baransu who was placed in a long detention pending trial. On July 16, 2016, Güler criticized the failed coup attempt, calling plotters as traitors and asking the Parliament to set up a commission to investigate the coup. All these messages were incorporated in the indictment as if they are criminal statements.
NEWS STORY SHARED AS TWITTER POST ENOUGH FOR PERSECUTION
Büşra Erdal, woman journalist who was imprisoned pending trial, committed Twitter crimes as well according to the prosecutor. She shared a Twitter message posted on July 17, 2016 by news portal T24 which quoted Gülen as saying “an international commission should investigate the coup bid”, adding to that he is ready to accept whatever conclusion this commission would draw at the end of inquiry.
Journalist who worked at Millet daily were not spared by the Prosecutor’s overstretch on terror definition based on Twitter messages. The indictment included Murat Aksoy’s Retweet of message on Feb. 21, 2015 by a user named @Gazeteoku which stated that Bank Asya, the largest Islamic banker in Turkey, has become the latest victim of government takeover of assets.
Mutlu Çölgeçen, another journalist on the same daily, posted a message on July 7, 2016, stating that in his soul, he feels like total silence before the storm. An anonymous Twitter user by the handle “Güzel Günler Gelecek” [Good Days Ahead] Retweeted his message saying s/he feels the same. Prosecutor found Çölgeçen’s message and anonymous user’s commentary as suspicious and added in the indictment as evidence of crime. In another message dated July 2, 2016, Çölgeçen warned about coup plots, saying that if the opposition political parties fail to do their jobs and governing party should not adopt a common-sense approach in the governance, a coup will happen. Despite coup warnings, Çölgeçen was accused of commentary added to this message in Twitter byline by other users whom the journalist has no control whatsoever.
On July 19, 2016, Çölgeçen shared a series of Twitter messages posted by another journalist İsmail Küçükkaya who questioned sequence of events on the attempted coup day and raised inconsistencies on when Erdogan and the government were alerted about the attempt. Prosecutor accused Çölgeçen for sharing these messages yet no action was taken against the author who wrote these Twitter messages in the first place.
The indictment of 29 journalists, 25 of whom are jailed, was accepted on Monday by the İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court, seeking up to 15 years’ imprisonment for the accused. The journalists are expected to appear in court between March 27-31.
TURKEY AT THE TOP ON TWITTER CENSORSHIP
Turkish government is not fond of social media and so many people were prosecuted in Turkey for critical message they posted on the Twitter. Erdogan even shut down Twitter altogether in March 2014 and vowed to “wipe out” Twitter. It is not surprising to see that Turkey has been submitting the highest volume of removal requests to Twitter.
In 2016 transparency report showed that Turkey has submitted 712 court orders to remove content from Twitter while 4,434 removal requests from other Turkish government agencies, police and authorities were filed with Twitter. The micro-blogging site has withheld 221 accounts on Turkey’s demand. Moreover, 1,571 of the 2,599 withheld Tweets were censored on Turkey’s demand.
According to the recent report by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) 191 journalists are either convicted and serving time in prison or jailed in pre-trial detention in a report released on January 26, 2017. According to the SCF, most of the journalists have not even seen an indictment against them. The report stated that 92 journalists are wanted for arrest but remain at large either in Turkey or abroad.
The SCF has also said that almost 300 journalists in Turkey, a member state of the Council of Europe and a candidate country for European Union membership, are languishing behind bars or facing outstanding arrest warrants. The number of media organizations seized and shut down by the government has reached 189, according to detailed SCF report.
Feb. 15, 2017