Turkish courts release eight journalists in two days

New York, March 27, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the release this week of at least eight imprisoned journalists in Turkey, but calls on Turkish authorities to scrap the charges against them and release all of the journalists jailed in the country. 

“While we welcome Turkey’s move to release journalists from prison, we reiterate that they should never have been jailed in the first place,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “As long as the charges are pending, and the threat of jail persists, the Turkish media will be deterred from independent and critical reporting.”

The charges against the journalists have not been dropped, their lawyers told CPJ. The journalists were freed as their cases were transferred to criminal courts following the shutdown of Turkish Courts of Special Authority, courts that were established in 2005 to fight serious crimes like terrorism.

In a special session on Wednesday, the 3rd Court of Serious Crimes in Istanbul ordered six journalists to be freed, according to news reports. The journalists were being held on charges including membership in the banned Union of Communities in Kurdistan, or KCK, which the government has designated a terrorist group. The journalists include Nevin Erdemir, reporter and editor for the daily Özgür Gündem; Semiha Alankuş, translator and editor for Dicle News Agency/DİHA; Kenan Kırkaya, Ankara representative for DİHA; Mazlum Özdemir, a DİHA reporter; Hüseyin Deniz, reporter for the socialist daily Evrensel; and Mehmet Emin Yıldırım, editor-in-chief of the Kurdish daily Azadiya Welat. All of the journalists have been in prison since December 2011.

Sinan Zincir, a lawyer for a few of the journalists, told CPJ the journalists have been banned from foreign travel. Their next court date is scheduled for July 10. He said five other journalists remained in prison in connection with the case and it is not clear why.

In a separate case today, the 20th Court of Serious Crimes in Istanbul ordered the release pending trial of Veysel Şahin, editor for the bimonthly Tavır, and Yeliz Kılıç, reporter for the biweekly Yürüyüş, who have been imprisoned since January 2013. The journalists are accused of involvement in the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Salvation Party/Front (DHKP/C).

Their lawyer, Evrim Deniz Karatana, told CPJ that the journalists had been freed but that the details surrounding the releases were not available. The charges have not been dropped.

Earlier this month, three other journalists held in connection with the KCK case were released. Dilek Demiral, former editor for Özgür Gündem, Sibel Güler, former editor for Özgür Gündem, and Ayşe Oyman, a reporter for DİHA, were freed on March 3, according to news reports.

Several journalists held in connection with the separate Ergenekon case were also released this month. Turhan Özlü, chief editor for the ultranationalist-leftist TV station Ulusal Kanal, was released from jail. Three others–Yalçın Küçük, opinion writer for Odatv; Deniz Yıldırım, chief editor of Aydınlık, and Merdan Yanardağ, chief editor of Yurt–were freed. Two other journalists–Tuncay Özkan, former owner of Kanal Biz and Kanaltürk TV stations, and Hikmet Çiçek, Ankara representative for Aydınlık–were also released, though CPJ has not been able to establish that their imprisonment was related to their work.

Turkey has been the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the past two years, according to CPJ’s annual prison census. Turkish authorities conflate the coverage of banned groups and the investigation of sensitive topics with outright terrorism or other anti-state activity, and make alarming use of detention prior to trial or verdict, CPJ research has found.

Separately today, Turkish authorities blocked YouTube. The Turkish Telecommunications authority TIB said it had taken “administrative measures” against the video-sharing website, according to news reports. The move came after a leaked voice recording was posted on the website in which Turkish officials were allegedly heard discussing possible intervention into neighboring Syria, the reports said. The measure follows the government’s shutdown of Twitter on March 21.