Mehmet Ali Ertaş, news editor for the Kurdish-language weekly Xwebün and a TV show producer at PEL Production Company, was among 15 Kurdish journalists and a media worker who were taken into police custody in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakır in June 2022 and were jailed without charge pending trial.
Ertaş is a reporter and editor who worked for the pro-Kurdish outlets Dicle News Agency (DİHA) and Kurdish-language daily Azadiya Welat before they were shuttered by a government decree in 2016. He then worked at the Mezopotamya News Agency as a Kurdish-language editor and is currently the news editor at Xwebün. The weekly newspaper started publication in December 2019 and focuses on the Kurdish language, politics, culture, and history. He was the producer of a debate show prepared by PEL, his lawyer, Resul Tamur, told CPJ.
PEL produces Kurdish-focused journalistic content including documentaries and shows on news, culture, arts, and political debates, and sells the content to European-based, pro-Kurdish broadcasters, according to Tamur.
Diyarbakır police raided several locations in the city, including journalists’ houses and newsrooms, in the early hours of June 8, 2022, and took into custody 20 journalists and media workers, along with a citizen who was once interviewed by one of the journalists. On June 15, 15 of those journalists and one media worker were jailed by a court pending trial, including Ertaş.
Ertaş said the journalists and media worker were imprisoned in retaliation for their coverage of Kurdish issues and their arrests were “totally arbitrary and illegal” in a letter published by the leftist daily Evrensel on August 19.
Tamur, who represents the 15 journalists and the media worker, told independent news website Bianet that the journalists will not learn about the accusations against them until they are charged due to a court order of secrecy, but said they were all questioned about their journalistic activities.
Tamur told Bianet that his clients were questioned about the angle they took on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group and political party that Turkey classifies as a terrorist group, and whether the content the journalists created for broadcast by European outlets was considered pro-PKK. Most of the journalists either work for pro-Kurdish media outlets or independent production companies that provide content for other outlets, according to news reports and CPJ’s interviews with local journalists.
Tamur told CPJ in an in-person interview in early November that his clients were being held at Diyarbakır Prison and remained under arrest but had not been indicted. He added that while the defense had not been informed of the details of the case, the authorities were focusing on content produced by the local ARİ, PEL, and PIA production companies. That content is broadcast by European-based, pro-Kurdish broadcasters Sterk TV and Medya TV. Tamur said his clients are not employees of these broadcasters, which buy the content from a distributor that works with ARİ, PEL, and PIA. The content was also made available on YouTube after their broadcasts, the lawyer added.
Diyarbakır courts denied the journalists’ appeals of their arrests and their pretrial detention on August 22 and September 8.
In prison, the journalists were not allowed to receive critical newspapers such as Yeni Yaşam, BirGün, and Evrensel, and only had access to radio with a limited number of stations. The prison administration withheld three letters written by imprisoned journalists Ertaş, Zeynel Abidin Bulut, and Serdar Altan on the basis that the letters may contain terrorism propaganda or terrorism-related communications, local news outlet Gazete Karınca reported in mid-June. The journalists were in good health and were allowed lawyer and family visits, but complained about a lack of access to socialization and sports activities, according to reports.
CPJ emailed the Turkish Ministry of Justice in October 2022 for comment but did not receive any reply.