Turkish veteran journalist Ünal Tanık arrested for not revealing his news source

A veteran journalist who run a popular online news portal in Turkey has been jailed for 273 days for not revealing the source of news stories that were published on the critial site.

Ünal Tanık, the owner and the editor-in-chief of online news portal called Rota Haber (rotahaber.com), was arrested because he published several articles that were written by a government whistle-blower who uses the handle Fuat Avni in microblogging site Twitter. Fuat Avni, a famous government insider with 3 million followers on Twitter, wrote three articles for Rota Haber in 2014, revealing secret plots cooked up by authoritarian government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The indictment filed against 58-year old journalist Tanık by Turkish prosecutor Murat Çağlak cites these articles as evidence of terrorism and asking the court to sentence him for up to 15 years jail time if he gets convicted.

Tanık, a journalist for 36 years, had been already under pressure by the government before the controversial coup attempt of July 15, 2016 and was target of threats, defamation and intimidation campaign by pro-government groups. The government shut down his web site along with almost 200 media outlets right after the failed coup bid as part of escalating crackdown on critical and independent media in Turkey.

He was detained on January 17, 2017 in Yalova, a city neighbouring İstanbul after remaining at large since August 12, 2016 when an İstanbul court had issued arrest warrant for him and his wife Muhterem Tanık, who is also a journalist. Police raided the home where Tanık was in hiding from government’s persecution of journalists and captured him whereas his wife’s whereabouts are still unknown.

Çağlak, infamous prosecutor who penned a 249-page indictment against 29 critical journalists, accuses journalists of membership of a hoax terror organization called ‘FETÖ’, a pejorative acronym that Turkey’s political Islamist government has used to smear the civic Gülen movement. However, the indictment fails to present any single incident of terrorist activity on the part of any of the journalists as they are basically being charged for their articles, news and critical messages on Twitter. Many journalists are allegedly linked with a whistle-blower twitter account, Fuat Avni.

In one of the articles written by Avni and published on Rota Haber had pointed the finger at Hakan Fidan, head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), for plotting a chaos that would grip the country to shore up the regime of Erdoğan. The chaos strategy would have helped the government to muzzle what is left of the critical and independent voices. That revelation promoted the MİT to file charges against Tanık in a bid to force him to disclose the identity of the whistle-blower and how he communicated with him. The indictment says Tanık declined to response to the written request of an Ankara court to reveal how got in touch with the government insider.

To protect his source, Tanık did not share any IP or log records with authorities and defended himself by saying no journalist can be forced to reveal his or her sources. The prosecutor submitted the lack of cooperation as an evidence of being a member of a terrorist organization. He was also accused of reporting about Twitter messages of Fuat Avni which was covered widely in all independent media outlets. Even pro-government mouthpiece Aydın Doğan’s Hürriyet, leftist Cumhuriyet and nationalist Sözcü reported about Fuat Avni’s revelations to woo more readers.

The prosecutor referred to the testimony of a former Rota Haber reporter Muhammet Çolak, who was uneasy with the news site’s coverage of corruption and said that when he asked his editor-in-chief Tanık, whether he was connected to the Gülen movement, Tanık told him that they were just a critical website. Another witness and former Rota Haber employee Şevket Taner Şahin said the website published interviews with famous soccer player Hakan Şükür and pop singer Atilla Taş, both are critics of the government.

The indictment also includes several books that were authored by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar who is major critic of Erdoğan, and that were found in the library of the journalist as criminal evidence.

The money in the amount of 6,800 euros deposited at three different occasions by his wife at Bank Asya which was affiliated with Gülen movement, was also listed as criminal evidence. Bank Asya was one of the three banks with the highest liquidity in Turkey until it was unlawfully seized by the government in May 2015 on trumped-up charges of terrorism.

Tanık appeared in the court for the first time on March 25, 2017. He rejected all allegations against him and defended himself by saying that what he did is nothing but a journalism. When asked why he provided an opportunity to Fuat Avni to write for Rota Haber, he told judges that anonymous twitter user had a large number of followers and he generated a curiosity and interest among readers. “All in all, Fuat Avni wrote 3 or 4 pieces,” he said.

After 5-day hearings, the court ruled for the continuation of Ünal Tanık’s arrest pending trial.

Tanık has worked for various media outlets since he started his journalism career in Tercüman daily, one-time a prominent mainstream daily in Turkey, in 1981 right after he graduated from literature department of İstanbul University. He moved to daily Meydan and then to daily Türkiye. After a while, he left the print media and started working for broadcast media taking jobs at different outlets such as Akra FM, TGRT, Kanal 7, and Kanal 6 televisions. He joined as a team member in an investigative news show Arena led by prominent journalist Uğur Dündar. Later, he went back to the print media and worked for Akşam newspaper.

Eventually, he decided to set up his own digital media outlet and established Rota Haber online news portal by investing his own lifesavings in to the business. His wife was his major helper in running the news portal. The news portal was one of the few online media outlets that dared to publish revelations from Turkey’s biggest corruption allegations involving cabinet ministers and Erdoğan family at the end of 2013 when many shied away from covering for fear of the government crackdown.

He lost the big chunk of revenue when the government put a squeeze on advertisers on the website and some reporters he hired left the portal to escape the government wrath. He and his wife decided to sell the apartment they bought as an investment for their kids to sustain the business. He thought he can weather the storm but did not predict that the government would confiscate his business altogether. Even though he stood against the failed coup bid and run critical pieces of putschists, he was accused of coup plotting charges.

Their children are left without their father who was placed in jail and missing their mother who remain at large.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by the Stockholm Centre for Freedom (SCF) has showed that 259 journalists and media workers are now in jails as of October 17, 2017, most in pre-trial detention languishing in notorious Turkish prisons without even a conviction. Of those in Turkish prisons, 235 are arrested pending trial, only 24 journalists remain convicted and serving time in Turkish prisons. An outstanding detention warrants remain for 133 journalists who live in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down more than 180 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt.

Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with President Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15. Turkey’s Justice Ministry announced on July 13 that 50,510 people have been arrested and 169,013 have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

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