Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis

Sidebar: No Justice for Hrant Dink

By Nicole Pope

Nearly six years after Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was shot in front of his Istanbul office by a 17-year-old ultranationalist, the real instigators, their links to state institutions, and the role played by the Turkish media in making the well-known journalist and human rights activist a target have yet to be fully investigated.

Captured shortly after he killed Dink on January 19, 2007, Ogün Samast was sentenced by a juvenile court in July 2011 to nearly 23 years of imprisonment. From the onset of the investigation, it was evident that the young man, who had traveled to Istanbul from the Black Sea city of Trabzon to commit the crime, had not acted alone. In the course of the inquiry, it emerged that police, gendarmerie, and intelligence officials in Trabzon, Istanbul, and Ankara were aware that an assassination attempt was planned, but did nothing to warn or protect Dink.

On January 17, 2012, the 14th Criminal Court in Istanbul ruled on the fate of other key suspects. It sentenced Yasin Hayal, seen as the mastermind, to life behind bars. Two defendants were sentenced to 12 years and six months of imprisonment as accessories to Dink’s murder, while another was punished for illegal gun possession. But to the dismay of Dink’s relatives and supporters, the court ruled that Erhan Tuncel, an ultranationalist police informant believed to be a major player, had no involvement in the assassination. All 19 suspects were cleared of being part of a criminal organization.

“Turkey has a tradition of political murders that goes back to Ottoman times. The judiciary still has the automatic reflex to protect the state and civil servants,” said Fethiye Çetin, lawyer for the Dink family. “They can’t reveal the truth about the Dink case because it was part of state policies.”

Paradoxically, the presiding judge himself acknowledged that the verdict was flawed. “We acquitted the suspects of organized crime charges,” Judge Rüstem Eryılmaz told Vatan newspaper. “This ruling does not mean that there was no organization involved. This means that there was not enough evidence to prove the actions of this organization.”

In prescient articles published days before his death, Dink expressed fears that he was in danger. “Why was I made a target?” he wrote in Agos, the weekly Armenian-Turkish newspaper he founded in 1996. Pressure against the ethnic Armenian writer had been building for years. A series of articles on Armenian identity published in 2004 led to his prosecution under the controversial Article 301 of the penal code for “insulting Turkishness.” He received a six-month suspended sentence, which was upheld on appeal in 2006.

The campaign against Dink and other non-Muslims may have its roots in a policy document adopted in 2001 by the National Security Council, which listed “minorities” and “missionary activities” among the threats to national security. “After the document was prepared, articles started appearing in the media suggesting the country was overrun by missionaries and Christian churches were being built everywhere,” Çetin said.

In 2006, Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was killed by a right-wing teenager, also from Trabzon, and a few months after Dink’s assassination, three Protestant missionaries were slaughtered in the eastern city of Malatya. In this case, too, state involvement is suspected.


At a time when power balances are shifting and the influence of the military is waning, the judicial investigation into Dink’s murder has been widely seen as a test: Can Turkey end a culture of impunity and shed a rigid state ideology that views some segments of society as internal foes? The case also highlights troubling issues regarding the Turkish media—though restrictions are imposed on press freedom, media outlets also play an active role in the smear campaigns directed at Dink and others deemed to be enemies of the state.

“The media were used as an instrument in the run-up to Hrant Dink’s murder,” said Rober Koptaş, Dink’s successor as editor of Agos. “There was a trial against him, but he was also attacked first by the right-wing press, then by mainstream media.”

The murder of a journalist known for his peace efforts shook Turkey to the core. Koptaş says the emotions it generated have contributed to improving perceptions of Turkey’s 50,000-strong ethnic Armenian community. The debate on the 1915 massacres has also broadened significantly, even if the Turkish authorities continue to deny strenuously that they amounted to genocide. “Hrant Dink’s murder has decreased pressure on Agos. Article 301 was amended after the murder, and any prosecution now has to get prior approval of the justice minister,” Koptaş said. “There has been no court case against us for the past four years.”

In the past few years, dozens of army officers and other figures suspected of plotting to overthrow the government have been arrested, among them officials who harassed Dink and tried to intimidate him. Journalists are among those facing terrorism charges, including Nedim Şener, who wrote a book alleging a police cover-up in the Dink case. Released pending trial in March 2012 after more than a year in prison, the reporter is accused of belonging to the very network he investigated.

Prosecutors looking into the past misdeeds of the “deep state” have limited their inquiries to elements perceived to pose a direct threat to the conservative government. Injustices committed against minorities have not received the same attention. As Çetin points out, “the Hrant Dink murder case has remained on the other side of the line.”

The Dink family has appealed the criminal court’s verdict, underscoring the prosecution’s failure to pursue crucial lines of inquiry pointing to state involvement in the journalist’s murder. The case will be reviewed by the Supreme Court of Appeals, which can confirm the ruling or order a retrial. A decision is not expected until the end of the year. Interest in the final outcome remains strong, in Turkey and abroad, and the ruling party is under pressure to ensure that justice is properly served. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged after the January 2012 criminal court ruling that “the Hrant Dink case will not be lost in the dark corridors of Ankara. No provocation, no plot will remain concealed.”

Çetin has publicly documented the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the judicial procedure. “Everything is out in the open,” she said. In spite of the legal team’s insistence, security camera footage and phone records that could have offered proof of other suspects’ presence at the murder scene were not produced in court. Prosecutors turned a blind eye to bureaucratic stonewalling. 

Çetin remains hopeful that the upper court will reject the judgment and demand a wider judicial inquiry. A report prepared in February by the official watchdog, the State Audit Institution, stated that the role of public officials has not been sufficiently investigated. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights came to a similar conclusion, based on the early results of the murder inquiry. The court also ruled that Turkey had violated Hrant Dink’s freedom of expression and failed to protect his life.

Nicole Pope is a Swiss journalist based in Istanbul. She was Turkey correspondent for the daily Le Monde for 15 years and currently works as a columnist and independent researcher. She is the author of Honor Killings in the Twenty-First Century and co-author of Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey.

(Photo by Reuters)

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