Adnan Bilen, Cemil Uğur, Şehriban Abi and Nazan Sala were jailed in October on the charge of “membership in a terrorist organization” over their coverage of allegations that two locals were tortured and thrown out of a chopper by soldiers in Van
CANAN COŞKUN, VAN
Five journalists, four of whom have been in pre-trial detention for almost six months, appeared before the Van 5th High Criminal Court on 2 April 2021 for the first hearing of their trial on the charge of “membership in a terrorist organization.”
Mezopotamya news agency (MA) reporters Adnan Bilen and Cemil Uğur, JinNews reporter Şehriban Abi and freelance journalist Nazan Sala have been jailed pending trial since October over their coverage of allegations that two locals were tortured and thrown out of a chopper by soldiers in Van. Zeynep Durgut, another MA reporter who was arrested and released pending trial as part of the same investigation, is the fifth defendant in the case.
News reports penned by the journalists are held as evidence for the accusations in the indictment, which alleges that the media outlets the journalists work for have been “publishing provocative content against the state.” Sala is additionally charged with “terrorism propaganda” for her social media posts.
P24 monitored the hearing, where the journalists addressed the court via the judicial video-conferencing network SEGBİS. Lawyers representing the journalists were present in the courtroom. Under orders from the presiding judge, only four journalists were allowed to follow the hearing in the courtroom. The presiding judge had the doors to the courtroom locked during the hearing and therefore not even lawyers who wanted to monitor the hearing were allowed in the courtroom.
Journalist Adnan Bilen made the first defense statement during the hearing:
“I have been a journalist for 20 years. I've made thousands of stories and interviews. I've never been prosecuted for any of these. My phone calls and the photos I took are held as evidence in the case file. During the police interrogation I was asked who I made the phone calls with. One person I interviewed was the chairperson of the Van Medical Chamber. The other phone call was with a lawyer. I talked to him about his client. He translated the European Court of Human Rights judgment about his client. How is that a crime? The photos I took at the Newroz festivities in 2015 are held as evidence against me. Should a journalist burn his archives so he doesn't get indicted? Every journalist in this city has that photo in their archive. These images were also broadcast on television channels. After 2002, the government prepared a documentary to prevent malpractice in this region and had us send them images about it. Now, how is this archive a crime? I have previously been prosecuted for posting the same photo on my social media account, and the sentence has been deferred. The Criminal Judgeship of Peace decision [to jail us] stated that I did not have a press card. It was also stated in the indictment. A press card is just an accreditation card, it is not proof that we're journalists. In the last four months alone, 682 press cards have been canceled. Ninety percent of foreign press members in Turkey had to leave for this reason.
“I work for a news agency with reporters all across Turkey. Reporters cannot decide on the agency’s editorial policy. No reporter can. There's a perception that we're responsible for all the news. This injustice needs to be addressed. We've been in prison for six months and for five months, we didn't know what we were accused of. We have been prevented from doing our jobs; our families suffered.”
As Bilen's defense continued, defense lawyers reminded the presiding judge that their colleagues were at the door, waiting to be allowed into the courtroom. The presiding judge rejected requests to have the courtroom’s door unlocked. When the president of the Van Bar Association, Zülküf Uçar, objected, the presiding judge said he would call the police to the courtroom.
“No one is free unless the press is free”
The court then heard Nazan Sala’s statement. She said: “Journalism is on trial in this case. I've been a journalist for 15 years. The press card issue comes up all the time. I held a press card between 2010 and 2017. I worked for the İpekyolu newspaper. Our cards were canceled when the newspaper was closed under a statutory decree. In 2019, I started working for the press department of the municipality. I was dismissed when a trustee was appointed. I also won the reinstatement case in June 2020. I was working for the city until I got arrested. I've written thousands of stories so far. We have colleagues in various prisons across this country. We also know that this is a political decision. Although there was no court decision against the newspaper where I worked between 2010 and 2016, this was cited as ‘crime’ in the indictment. How can a journalist be charged over a newspaper archive? I am also accused for two Twitter posts I shared; I have thousands of social media posts on matters ranging from child abuse to murders of women. But retweeting a funeral photo and a post about the Roboski massacre is considered a crime.”
At this point, the presiding judge interrupted, warning Sala that she was talking about “political” matters.
Sala continued: “We have been in prison for six months. I have a medical condition. I had surgery and prison conditions are not suitable. I’m having trouble accessing my medications. If the press is not free, no one is free, including you.”
After Sala, Şehriban Abi addressed the court. She said: “In 2018, I started working as an intern reporter at JinNews. I've worked on women's and children's stories. How is it that reporting on murdered women and child abuse a crime? Are we being charged for telling the truth to the society?”
“We're jailed for reporting on torture alleagtions”
Addressing the court for his defense statement following Abi, Cemil Uğur rejected the accusation against him. He said: “The indictment says we don't report on sports, entertainment or nature. Even this much is enough to show how far the indictment is from being a legal document. How is working at the Mezopotamya news agency associated with a terrorist organization? It’s unacceptable that newspapers and books are held as criminal evidence in the indictment as though they were ‘bombs.’ The phone calls we made were journalistic work. We're in jail for reporting on the alleged torture of two citizens who were thrown from a chopper. Eyewitness testimony and hospital reports support our report. The indictment says we don't hold a press card. The press card is just a facilitator. I deny the charge that I face due to carrying out journalistic activity. There is no democracy, human rights or freedoms in a place where journalists are imprisoned.”
Zeynep Durgut, the fifth journalist charged with “membership in a terrorist organization” in the indictment, who was arrested and released pending trial as part of the same investigation, addressed the court next.
“During my time as a journalist, no charges have been filed against me,” Durgut said, adding: “In a country where dozens of women are slaughtered every day, it is not a crime to participate in a broadcast on 8 March. What is the crime in reporting on 8 March?”
Airing a program on 8 March on Sterk TV is held among evidence against Durgut in the indictment.
Presiding judge: “There is no need to hear a witness”
After Durgut's statement, lawyer Ekin Yeter requested that the court hear the defendants’ witnesses, who were waiting outside the courtroom. The presiding judge rejected the request, saying: “There is no need for a witness. You’re excited, take your seat.”
Another defense lawyer, Veysel Ok, then addressed the court: “This [trial] concerns the death of Servet Turgut and the serious injury of Osman Şiban. If the journalists hadn't reported on this, we wouldn't have known about it. There's no informant in this case, there's no concrete evidence. But the prosecutor had the journalists detained in a raid. This case is about a torture story. The prosecutor ignored this. This indictment is not a legal text anyway. This indictment called these journalists ‘terrorists’ for not reporting on sports and nature. What should journalists report on in Van? There's a constant violation of rights here. Of course a journalist who lives and works here is not going to write about [the singer] Bülent Ersoy. The indictment also linked the Mezopotamya news agency to a terrorist organization. But the news agency is a legally operating company. The government collects insurance premiums from this company and then calls journalists who work there ‘terrorists.’ Governments cannot set traps.”
Upon the completion of defense lawyers’ statements, the prosecutor demanded the continuation of the pre-trial detention of the four jailed journalists, citing “concrete evidence indicating the existence of strong suspicion of criminal activity on the part of the defendants within the media leg of the PKK-KCK armed terrorist organization” and arguing that “like all other freedoms, press freedom too has its limits.”
Issuing their interim ruling after 10 minutes of deliberations, the court panel ruled to release Bilen, Uğur, Sala and Abi pending trial under judicial control measures in the form of a monthly signature obligation and a ban on traveling abroad. The court set 2 July 2021 as the date for the second hearing.
Accordingly, Bilen, Uğur, Sala and Abi, who had been in pre-trial detention since October 2020, were released from the Van Prison later on 2 April. Meanwhile, the prosecutor filed an objection against the court’s decision to release the four journalists.