Mustafa Ünal, a former reporter for the shuttered Turkish daily Zaman, was arrested shortly after the failed attempted coup of 2016, and found guilty of “being a member of a [terrorist] organization.” The journalist, who denies any involvement in the coup, is serving a 10-year, six-month prison sentence.
Police detained Ünal at his home in Ankara the morning of July 27, 2016. On July 30, the court arraigned him and co-defendants and fellow former Zaman journalists Ali Bulaç, Ahmet Turan Alkan, and Şahin Alpay on charges of being members of a terrorist organization. They were accused of following exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government accuses of maintaining a terrorist organization and "parallel state structure" (FETÖ/PDY, by its Turkish acronym) and masterminding the coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
According to records of the arraignment hearing, which CPJ reviewed, the state alleged that Bulaç, Alpay, Alkan, and Ünal wrote articles in Zaman praising FETÖ/PDY and that the newspaper was the group’s media organ.
The state further alleged that because Ünal and the other Zaman columnists continued writing for the newspaper after its editor-in-chief, Ekrem Dumanlı, was charged in absentia with being "a member of an armed terrorist organization," they remained involved even though they knew the group included armed elements.
According to the court records, the state also alleged that Bulaç, Alpay, Alkan, and Ünal praised Gülenists on social media, despite what the state described as "strong discourse and public information" that an armed uprising would take place.
The court judged the journalists to be flight risks and ordered them jailed pending trial. Many people fled Turkey in the wake of the government crackdown on suspected Gülenists.
The court did not specify the accusations against the individual journalists but judged their cases collectively, court documents show.
An Istanbul court in March 2016 ordered the Feza Media Group, which owned Zaman and several other media outlets, placed under trustees appointed by the government. The government used emergency powers arrogated after the failed coup to order the newspaper closed by decree on July 27, 2016.
According to records of the arraignment hearing, Ünal told the court that he retired from Zaman after it was placed under trusteeship, and that he waited for the police to come to his home, which he said showed he had no intention of trying to escape should the court grant bail. Ünal told the court he suffers from thyroid problems.
His lawyer, İbrahim İpar, told CPJ in 2016 that he was initially unable to obtain the records of Ünal’s testimony to police or prosecutors because of restrictions established by the state of emergency.
Ünal was tried alongside 30 journalists and media workers and an academic. All were charged with “attempting, through violence and force, to disrupt and replace the order as recognized by Turkey’s Constitution,” “attempting through violence and force to eliminate or prevent Parliament from carrying out its duties,” and “being a member of an armed terrorist organization.” Not all of the defendants were in custody.
The trial’s first hearing was in Istanbul on September 18, 2017.
In the indictment, reviewed by CPJ, the prosecution said that the defendants’ journalism, including opinion pieces or their employment by pro-Gülen outlets such as the daily Zaman and Cihan News Agency, is evidence that the journalists were part of the alleged terror group.
The indictment accused the journalists—which it referred to as “the media force of the terrorist organization”—of producing false news to weaken the government, insult or humiliate the authorities, attempt to disrupt the peace, and to create an environment suitable for a coup.
Ünal denied the charges, according to the indictment.
An Istanbul court on July 6, 2018, found Ünal guilty of "being a member of an armed [terrorist] organization and sentenced him to 10 years and six months in prison, according to news reports. The court acquitted the journalist of the other charges. He is being held at Silivri Prison in Istanbul.
CPJ repeatedly called and texted İpar for updates on Ünal’s case and looked for other legal representation and family members of the journalist in September and October 2022, but did not receive any replies.
CPJ emailed the Turkish Ministry of Justice in October 2022 for comment but did not receive any reply.