Journalist Adnan Bilen, currently a reporter for Mezopotamya news agency (MA), worked as a press consultant for the Van Metropolitan Municipality for a while. In the wake of the attempted coup of 15 July 2016, Bilen was dismissed from his post by the government-appointed trustee to the municipality and the new administration reported Bilen to the authorities on allegations of “FETÖ” connection, following which the Van Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation against Bilen on the charge of “making propaganda for the FETÖ.”
On 5 October 2018, Bilen’s former address was raided by police. He was arrested at the Anti-Terror Branch of the Van Police Department, where he had gone to give his statement with his lawyer on the same day he received news of the raid. Bilen was released later in the evening after his statement was taken.
Failing to determine any findings related to the alleged FETÖ connection at the end of the investigation, the prosecutor’s office prepared an indictment against Bilen on the charge of “making propaganda for the KCK/PKK.” The indictment cited Bilen’s posts on his social media account as evidence. One of the posts was a news story by Bilen’s then-employer Özgür Gündem newspaper -- which was shut down under a statutory decree within the scope of the State of Emergency declared after the failed coup attempt -- headlined “Bu tarih sizin” (This history is yours); the other post simply read “Özgürlükçü Demokrasi bayilerde” (Özgürlükçü Demokrasi hits newsstands). The Van 2nd High Criminal Court accepted the indictment.
The first hearing in the trial was held at the Van 2nd High Criminal Court on 19 July 2018. In his defense statement, Bilen denied the accusations and stated that his social media posts cited by the indictment should be considered within the framework of freedom of expression. Bilen’s lawyer Haşem Baygümüş stated that Bilen was a journalist and shared the news in question as part of the public’s right to information, therefore demanding Bilen’s acquittal.
At the final hearing held on 11 December 2018, the court sentenced Bilen to 1 year and 10 months in prison on the charge of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.” The sentence was deferred.
“Insulting the president” case
An investigation was launched against Bilen on the charge of “insulting the president” pursuant to Article 299/1 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) over his social media posts shared on the dates of 31 July 2015 and 31 December 2017.
The first of the posts that was the subject of the investigation concerned the banner headline on the front page of BirGün newspaper dated 31 December 2014, which Bilen shared on his social media account on 31 December 2017. The headline read, “Kara bir yıla; 2014’e böyle veda ediyoruz” (This is how we bid farewell to a black year, 2014) and was accomapnied by the images of Berkin Elvan, the 15-year-old boy who died in March 2014 after spending 269 days in coma due to a gas canister fired by police during the Gezi Park protests of 2013; miners who were killed in the Soma coal mine disaster that killed 301 people in the Manisa province in May 2014; and Erdoğan. The cutline under the photo of Elvan said “Kaşlarının Karası” (The black of his eyebrows); the one under the photo of Soma mine workers said “Kömür Karası” (The Black of Coal); and the photo of President Erdoğan was captioned “Yüz Karası” (The Black Sheep).
The other element that was being investigated was Bilen’s post regarding an article that was published on T24 news portal on 31 July 2015. Bilen had shared an opinion column by T24 columnist Hakan Aksay, titled “Selo dağa çıksın, Apo hiç konuşmasın, Maho Ağa mutlu olsun” (Selo should take to the mountains, Apo should never talk, and then Maho Agha will be happy). In the article, a photograph of President Erdoğan was doctored on an image of the 1978 Turkish cult movie Kibar Feyzo (Feyzo, the Polit One) which is about the exploitation of villagers by power-hungry and fascistic Maho Agha in southeastern Turkey. (The article in question referred to jailed Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş [Selo] and Abdullah Öcalan [Apo], the founder of the PKK.)
On 25 February 2019, the Van Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office issued a half-page indictment against Bilen, where he was accused of “publicly insulting the president” under TCK 299/1-2 for sharing two posts whose content was not authored by him. The indictment alleged that Bilen had committed two counts of the crime of “insulting the president.” The Van 4th Criminal Court of First Instance accepted the indictment.
The first hearing in the trial took place on 19 July 2019. In his defense statement, Bilen said that the articles in question were not penned by him, adding: “I shared a column and a front-page story. The photo captioned “Faşo Ağa” (Fascist Agha) was already included in the article. I did not add it later. ‘The black sheep’ was mentioned in the front-page story, as well. It’s not something I added later on. I don’t think this constitutes a crime. In addition, they are not degrading or demeaning expressions. It’s just heavy criticism. Thousands of people have shared this article on social media. However, I am the only one who is being prosecuted for it. Even the author who had penned the article was not prosecuted for it.”
Bilen’s lawyer Baygümüş stated: “The front-page story is the newspaper’s own post. It is not my client’s own post. There have been no investigations against the staff members or the editors of the said newspaper. I deny the accusation that sharing a news article can amount to insulting the president. Freedom of expression should be considered from a broad perspective. On the issue of the opinion column, there have been no investigations against the columnist, either. My client has not added his own thoughts or interpretation to the said post.”
At the final hearing, which took place on 8 November 2019, the court concluded that the crime of “insulting the president” was not committed over the sharing of Hakan Aksay’s column and ruled to acquit Bilen of the charge concerned, while sentencing him to 11 months and 20 days in prison on the same charge over the sharing of the BirGün front-page story. The court commuted the prison sentence to a fine of TL 7,000. Bilen’s lawyer appealed the verdict with the regional appellate court, which upheld the sentence in February 2020.
“Membership in a terrorist organization” case
As one of the journalists who covered the allegations that two individuals were tortured and thrown out of a chopper by soldiers in the eastern province of Van, MA reporter Adnan Bilen was arrested during a police raid on his home on 6 October 2020.
The Anti-Terror Branch of the Van Police confiscated Bilen’s digital equipment and notebooks during the raid. After spending three days under custody on the allegation of “reporting on social incidents against the interests of the state,” Bilen was brought to the courthouse and referred to the criminal judgeship of peace with a request for his imprisonment. The Van 3rd Criminal Judgeship of Peace jailed Bilen pending trial, upon which he was taken to the Van High Security Closed Prison. The detention order claimed that Bilen was “not a member of the press” since he did not hold a press card issued by the Presidency’s Directorate of Communications.
On 11 February 2021, the Van Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office issued an indictment against Bilen and three other journalists who were all jailed pending trial along with him -- MA reporter Cemil Uğur, JinNews reporter Şehriban Abi, and journalist Nazan Sala -- in addition to MA reporter Zeynep Durgut, who was briefly arrested and later released pending trial as part of the same investigation.
The 14-page indictment, dated 11 February 2021, charged the journalists with “membership in a terrorist organization” under TCK 314/2, citing their reports and conversations with their sources. The indictment also alleged that the news agencies and newspapers for which the journalists worked published “provocative content against the state.” The Van 5th High Criminal Court accepted the indictment.
The first hearing of the trial was held on 2 April 2020. Bilen addressed the court via the judicial video-conferencing network SEGBİS from the Van Prison where he was jailed pending trial since October 2020. Bilen made his defense statement during the hearing, noting that all of the accusations in the indictment were related to his professional activities as a journalist. Bilen stated in his defense statement:
“I have been a journalist for 20 years. I have made thousands of news stories and interviews. To this day, I have never been prosecuted for any of these. The case file includes only my phone calls and photos. At the police department, I was asked with whom I made the phone calls. One person I had a conversation with was the chairperson of the Van Medical Chamber. I was calling him for a news story. My other phone conversation was with a lawyer. I called him to ask about a client of his. He translated the European Court of Human Rights judgment about his client for me. How can this be a crime? The photos in the case file are the photos I took during the Newroz celebrations in 2015. These were listed as evidence against me. Should a journalist burn down his archive to avoid a crime? All the journalists in this city have that same photo. These images were also broadcast on television channels. After 2002, the government prepared a documentary so as to prevent bad practices in the region, and they collected images from us regarding this. Now, how can this archive be a crime? I have stood trial before over sharing that same photo in a social media post and the sentence has been deferred. The Criminal Judgeship of Peace cited in their decision that I did not hold a press card. It was also stated in the indictment. The press card is an accreditation card; it does not determine whether we are journalists. In the last four months, 682 press cards have been canceled. Ninety percent of foreign press members stationed in Turkey have had to leave the country for this reason. We are working for a news agency with reporters all over Turkey. It is not our duty to determine the editorial policy. None of the reporters has such a duty. There is a perception that we are responsible for all the news. This injustice needs to be addressed. We have been in prison for six months. For five months, we didn’t even know what we were accused of.”
At the end of the hearing, the court ruled to release Bilen, Uğur, Abi and Sala pending trial under judicial control measures, which include a monthly signature obligation and an international travel ban.
The second hearing of the trial was held on 2 July 2021. In an interim ruling, the court reduced the signature obligation imposed on Zeynep Durgut to once a month and ordered the continuation of the judicial control measures and the international travel ban imposed on her four co-defendants. The court adjourned the trial until 21 October 2021.
The third hearing of the case was held on 21 October 2021. Bilen and his lawyer Murat Timur were in attendance. Uğur, Durgut, Abi and Sala submitted letters of excuse. The court initially did not allow spectators in the courtroom. Following objections, the court decided to let two journalists in the courtroom to follow the hearing. The court lifted the judicial control measures imposed on all five journalists but denied the return of their equipment. The court set 6 January 2022 as the date for the fourth hearing.
The fourth and final hearing of the trial was held on 6 January 2022. The prosecutor presented their final opinion, requesting acquittal for all five journalists on the charge of “membership in a terrorist organization” but demanding that Nazan Sala be sentenced for “terrorism propaganda” for her social media posts. At the end of the hearing, the court acquitted all five journalists of “membership in a terrorist organization” charge but sentenced Sala to 1 year and 3 months in prison for “terrorism propaganda” for social media posts allegedly shared by the journalist.