Riot police secure the entrance to Caglayan Courthouse in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 26, 2022. (Reuters/Umit Bektas)

Turkey’s legal year begins with new terrorism charges, convictions for journalists

In the first week of the legal year when courts open, Turkish courts convicted two journalists on terrorism charges, brought new terrorism charges against two others, and rejected an appeal for the release of 15 journalists and one media worker, who have been in pretrial detention for nearly three months.

On Wednesday, September 7, 2022, a court in the eastern city of Van charged Ferhat Çelik, publisher of pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya News Agency (MA), and İdris Yayla, publisher of the pro-Kurdish news website Jiyan Haber, with targeting “those who were tasked to combat terrorism,” and the pair will go on trial on November 22, according to news reports.

The publishers, who were not placed under arrest, were charged for publishing a 2020 news story about a Van prosecutor who investigated torture allegations regarding Turkish military personnel who threw two men from a helicopter in Van in 2020, according to those reports. The same prosecutor later led a case against five journalists for reporting on the allegations. The journalists were acquitted in early 2022, but one received a 15-month suspended sentence for social media posts on other issues. 

Çelik told CPJ via messaging app that police called him for questioning about the story two years ago, but he defended his decision to publish it. “This story would have news value anywhere in the world,” Çelik said.  

Yayla told CPJ via email of his decision to publish the story. “We just did what the profession requires,” adding that he perceives the charges as an “aim to silence and intimidate impartial journalists.”

On Thursday, September 8, an Istanbul court found journalists Sadık Topaloğlu and Sadiye Eser guilty of being members of a terrorist organization and sentenced them both to six years and three months in prison, according to news reports. Topaloğlu and Eser formerly worked as reporters for MA, according to Çelik. 

The journalists are free pending appeal but they are under judicial control and banned from foreign travel, their lawyer Özcan Kılıç told CPJ via messaging app. Topaloğlu and Eser were questioned by an Istanbul court before their arrests in 2019 about their international travel, sources, and professional work and were convicted based on written testimony from an anonymous government witness, according to those sources and the six-page indictment reviewed by CPJ. They were released pending trial in March 2020 at the first hearing of their trial, reports said.

The Chief Prosecutor’s Office of Istanbul responded to CPJ’s emailed request for comment and said the request must be made in person or through a lawyer.

Separately on Thursday, September 8, the 1st Diyarbakır Court of Penal Peace rejected a second appeal filed by the lawyers of the 15 journalists and one media worker arrested in early June, objecting to the court-issued gag order on the investigation, MA reported. None of the accused have been formally charged, according to the report.

A different Diyarbakır court rejected a previous appeal in the case in August, as CPJ documented. Their lawyer Resul Tamur previously told CPJ that all of the defendants were questioned by the police about their professional journalistic work before their arrests.

CPJ emailed the Chief Prosecutor’s Offices of Van and Diyarbakır for comment but did not receive a reply. 

Editor’s note: The third paragraph of this report has been updated to correct a reference to the role of the Van prosecutor who investigated the torture allegationsHe is not prosecuting Çelik and Yayla’s upcoming trial.