Istanbul, May 9, 2023—Turkish authorities should not contest the appeals of the four journalists recently sentenced by multiple courts because of their reporting or commentary and should ensure that the media is not threatened by judicial harassment, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.
Since April 20, authorities have sentenced journalists Sinan Aygül, Bülent Mumay, Ferhat Çelik, and İdris Yayla over various criminal charges relating to their work and issued them prison terms ranging from 4.5 to 20 months, according to news reports and journalists who spoke with CPJ. The journalists remain free, as one received a suspended sentence, and the others have pending appeals.
The four journalists covered or commented on alleged corruption in the judiciary, the former administration of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, and the local head of a government-sponsored charity.
Elections for the parliament and presidency are scheduled for May 14.
“The recent sentencings of journalists Sinan Aygül, Bülent Mumay, Ferhat Çelik, and İdris Yayla are the latest examples of Turkish authorities’ misguided tradition of criminalizing journalism,” said Özgür Öğret, CPJ’s Turkey representative. “Authorities should not fight these journalists’ appeals. Regardless of who triumphs in the upcoming elections, the new administration should make the necessary reforms to ensure that the media doesn’t operate with a constant fear of judicial harassment.”
On May 2, Turkish authorities informed Aygül that, on April 20, the Second Criminal Court of First Instance in the eastern city of Tatvan had found him guilty of trespassing at a business in August 2020 and sentenced him to 4 months, 15 days in prison, according to news reports, court documents reviewed by CPJ, and Aygül, who communicated with CPJ by messaging app.
The charges are connected to reporting by Aygül, chief editor of the privately owned website Bitlis News and chair of the Bitlis Journalists Society, about meat from Turkey’s Red Crescent that was supposed to be distributed to people in need but was allegedly instead delivered to a hotel kitchen.
In August 2020, Battal Taşar filed a criminal complaint against Aygül for allegedly trespassing at the hotel. Taşar was also the Tatvan branch chairperson of the Red Crescent and owns the hotel with his brother Cemal Taşar, a parliamentary deputy of Bitlis province from the ruling Justice and Development Party.
Aygül did not deny entering the hotel kitchen without permission, but argued that he acted for the public good. Taşar resigned from his position at the Red Crescent in September 2020 amid what he called a smear campaign, reports said.
The court sentenced Aygül during a “simple trial,” meaning the court came to a judgment without a hearing, resulting in a reduced sentence. Aygül told CPJ he filed an appeal, which will lead to a regular trial, but he fears he will serve six months instead. He remains free pending that trial.
Separately, on May 5, the Second Court of Serious Crimes in the eastern city of Van sentenced Çelik and Yayla on charges of “making targets of those who were tasked to combat terrorism,” according to news reports. The charges are in connection to a 2020 news story about a Van prosecutor who investigated Turkish military personnel who allegedly threw two men from a helicopter.
Çelik, publisher of pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya News Agency, and Yayla, publisher of the pro-Kurdish news website Jiyan Haber, were each sentenced to 15 months in prison. They remain free pending appeal. In April, police raided Çelik’s house in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır as part of a broader crackdown, leading to multiple journalists being jailed pending trial.
Also, the 59th Criminal Court of First Instance in the city of Istanbul sentenced Mumay, an editor with the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s Turkish service, of “illegally obtaining or distributing personal data” in connection to a 2020 tweet about censorship of news stories regarding alleged corruption in Istanbul, according to news reports and court documents reviewed by CPJ.
Mumay was sentenced to 20 months in prison and remains free as the court suspended the execution of his sentence for the next five years unless he commits another offense.
The chief prosecutor’s office in Istanbul told CPJ via email that they do not reply to emailed requests for comment. CPJ’s emails to the chief prosecutors’ offices in Van and Tatvan and the parliamentary office of Cemal Taşar did not receive replies. CPJ’s call to the legal representation for Battal Taşar did not receive a response.
[Editors’ Note: The sixth and eighth paragraphs were updated to correct the timeline of events.]