Yakup Şimşek, brand marketing manager for Turkish critical daily, behind bars over a TV commercial

A veteran media professional has been jailed in Turkey for 430 days over a TV commercial that was designed to attract new subscribers to the print edition of a national daily.

Yakup Şimşek, 53-year old marketing manager who have spent almost a quarter century in media, marketing and advertising industry in Turkey, was charged under the country’s abusive anti-terror and coup plotting charges.

The purported criminal evidence against him is an advertisement that was aired in national TV networks nine months before the controversial coup bid of July 15, 2016. The ad was nothing but a promotion campaign to woo new readers for Zaman, one-time best-selling newspaper in Turkey. Şimşek was the Brand Marketing Director of Zaman daily and he was responsible for promoting the brand name, and increasing the sales.

In a bizarre twist in the case, Turkish prosecutor claimed that a TV commercial aired 9 months 10 days before the coup attempt was in fact a secret message for a coup in a subliminal way. It would be quite a prank for Şimşek if the prosecutor did not just make up a new penal code on sending subliminal message. He is facing three lifetime sentencing if gets convicted on fabricated charges. The prosecutor is also asking an additional 15 years jail time as if aggravated life time sentencing was not enough.

The commercial was actually part of yearly promotional campaign by Zaman daily that had been done on a regular basis. It had been aired in various networks for 40 days and did not ruffle feathers in pro-government circles. No complaint filed against the ad and there was certainly no criminal probe launched against it by any prosecutor as there was no basis for doing so.

The commercial consisted of series of five different clips that last 20 seconds each. In one of these clips, a baby smiled after blow horn sirens wailed over a city. It was a sales pitch for the newspaper to readers if they want to keep abreast of urgent developments in their cities and towns. Yet, after the failed coup bid, the prosecutor claimed the baby in the ad was a metaphor that foresaw the coup attempt nine months later.

Şimşek appeared before the court on June 19, 2017 for the first time after spending 348 days in pre-trial detention. He started his testimony by saying that the prosecutor’s baseless accusations against him did not even do the math correctly when counting the days since the commercial first aired on TVs. He said he counted the number of days between the day the ad was first aired and the day of the failed coup attempt while sitting in the prison cell. His conclusion was that the prosecutor’s claim of “9 months and 10 days” lapsed since the ad was first aired was wrong because it was actually “9 months and 14 days.”

He refused all charges that lack any basis and without any criminal evidence whatsoever. He said he was not responsible for the content that was actually generated by an advertising company contracted by the newspaper.

“My father is 83 years old and has serious health problems. My mother had an operation when I was behind bars,” he said while demanding for a release to help attend their care in their old age. But the court rejected and ruled the continuation of his arrest.

In the second trial hearing that took place on September 19, 2017, he once again denied accusations. He expressed his sadness that his youngest son did not want to go school since his father was unfairly labelled as “traitor” and “terrorist” in the pro-government media. Again, the court refused to release Şimşek although he has already served more than 14 months in İstanbul’s notorious Silivri Prison without any conviction yet.

The real crime Şimşek committed is his years-long work for the critical and independent daily Zaman newspaper which was unlawfully seized by the government on March 4, 2016. The government caretakers who took over the corporate side of the media had not only changed the editorial of the newspaper to pro-government but also fired all top editors, managers and investigative reporters. Şimşek was one of the managers who were dismissed in the aftermath of the brutal takeover of the newspaper with hundreds of amti-terror and riot police officers storming the newsrooms and ransacking the place. He was arrested on trumped-up charges of terror on August 5, 2016 along with dozens of journalists and media workers.

Şimşek started his media career as a local reporter for Zaman in 1991, working his way up in the newspaper and eventually becoming a bureau chief in eastern province Elazığ. His success in promoting the newspaper as bureau chief in the province helped him land a position at the headquarters. The company appointed him as a coordinator responsible for the sales in all provinces of Turkey. He was later tapped as the deputy director of advertising department of which he would be the director years later. After spending eight years in media advertising, he was promoted as the chief sales coordinator who was responsible for the circulation of the newspaper in 2008.

In 2010, Şimşek was named as the brand marketing director of Feza Holding, the parent company of Zaman that owns several publications including an English daily Today’s Zaman, news weekly magazine Aksiyon, TV network Irmak and news agency Cihan. It was on the peak of his career when the government seized the Zaman media group.

The prosecutor who seeks three life sentences and 15 years in additional prison sentence for Şimşek also accused him of talking to Hidayet Karaca, the general manager of Samanyolu TV network who has been jailed for almost three years on fabricated charges. What was a routine business networking for Şimşek who had to talk senior media professionals as part of his job is now considered as a criminal activity.

The prosecutor submitted the books authored by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen that were found in his library as terror evidence in the indictment. Şimşek is also charged with depositing money into Bank Asya affiliated with Gülen movement, which was one of the three banks with the highest liquidity in Turkey until it was unlawfully seized by the government in May 2015.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has showed that 280 journalists and media workers are now in jails as of September 30, 2017, most in pre-trial detention languishing in notorious Turkish prisons without even a conviction. Of those in Turkish prisons, 255 are arrested pending trial, only 25 journalists remain convicted and serving time in Turkish prisons. An outstanding detention warrants remain for 134 journalists who live in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the 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 Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Fethullah 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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