Expression Interrupted

Journalists and academics bear the brunt of the massive crackdown on freedom of expression in Turkey. Scores of them are currently subject to criminal investigations or behind bars. This website is dedicated to tracking the legal process against them.

INTERVIEW | Fırat Can Arslan: Prison administrations were baffled at the charge

INTERVIEW | Fırat Can Arslan: Prison administrations were baffled at the charge

Mezopotamya News Agency reporter Fırat Can Arslan recounts his arrest and the 100 days he spent in solitary confinement over a social media post he shared


According to data compiled by the Expression Interrupted platform, there are currently 36 journalists in prison in Turkey. Charges brought against journalists are most often drawn from the Anti-Terror Law (TMK). While journalists are often charged with “terrorism propaganda” over their coverage and with “membership in a terrorist organization” over the media organizations they work for, journalists who are free pending trial are most frequently charged with “insult” or “insulting a public official” under the Turkish Penal Code (TCK).

However, there are two other charges increasingly faced by journalists in Turkey in recent years. One of these is “publicly disseminating misleading information” under TCK Article 217/A, which is commonly referred to as the “disinformation” law. Since its enactment in October 2022, this provision has become a nightmare for the media, with at least 33 journalists having been subject to investigations for this crime. Some were arrested, some were sentenced and some are still on trial.

The second one is “marking a person assigned with the fight against terrorism as a target” under Article 6/1 of the Anti-Terror Law, which has been in effect since 1991. Almost every week, at least a few journalists spend several hours at the courthouse because of this charge. Although defendants charged with this offense -- punishable by imprisonment between one to three years -- are often free pending trial, this year we saw a first when Mezopotamya News Agency (MA) reporter Fırat Can Arslan became the first journalist to be arrested on this charge in July.

Arslan was arrested for reporting on public information published in the Official Gazette -- about a decision by the Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK) regarding the relocations of a public prosecutor and a judge. The grounds for Arslan’s arrest was writing about the relocations of public prosecutor Mehmet K., who drafted the indictment against 16 journalists who were arrested in Diyarbakır in June 2022, and the prosecutor’s spouse, Seda K., who was on the panel of judges of the court overseeing the trial of the journalists, to the Vezirköprü district of Samsun province.

Arslan was detained in a police raid on his home in 25 July 2023. The same day, he was arrested by a magistrate due to presenting “flight risk.” Perhaps because no one had previously been arrested on the same charge, upon being arrested, Arslan was transferred between several prisons because the prison administrations could not decide whether Arslan was in “ordinary remand” or “in remand for organization membership.” The last prison he was taken to would only accept him on condition that he stayed in solitary confinement.

Staying in solitary confinement for 100 days in prison, Arslan was acquitted and released by the trial court at the first hearing of his trial on 31 October 2023. We discussed his arrest, prison conditions and being a journalist in prison in Turkey with Arslan.

* You are the first journalist to have been arrested under TMK 6/1. How did the process go?

I’m the first journalist to have been arrested under Article 6/1 of TMK, which entered into force in 1991. Just this information alone shows how the investigation against me was an arbitrary method of punishment. I spent exactly 100 days in prison due to an investigation against me over reporting about the violation of fellow journalists’ right to a fair trial. I was accused because I had reported on the contents of a circular issued by the Council of Judges and Prosecutors and published in the Official Gazette after being signed by President Erdoğan.

I’d like to remind you of some jurisprudence concerning the charge against me. For example, in the Dalban v. Romania judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), it is clearly stated that it is unacceptable to prevent a journalist from expressing value judgments that cannot be proven true and therefore the voicing of opinions, criticism and speculation that cannot be proven, along with the voicing of facts and information that can be checked for their truth, safeguarded under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). While my reporting, which did not include any personal commentary or criticism, was made subject to a charge, the ECtHR has ruled that opinions, criticism and speculation which cannot be proven are protected.

The ECtHR has also expressed the opinion that “Freedom of the press includes a degree of exaggeration and even provocation; and even if expressions a journalist uses in their writing are polemical in nature, when these expressions are supported by an objective explanation, they cannot be considered baseless personal attacks.”

It is not just the ECtHR; the Supreme Court of Appeals, which is today completely dominated by the ruling AKP-MHP bloc, has important jurisprudence on this matter. For example, a Supreme Court of Appeals judgment dated 13 February 2007 reads: “the freedom of the press includes a degree of exaggeration and even provocation; and even if expressions a journalist uses in their writing are polemical in nature, when these expressions are supported by an objective explanation, they cannot be considered baseless personal attack,” which goes to summarize it all.

* Today, the Supreme Court of Appeals refuses to implement Constitutional Court judgments and has even filed criminal complaints against Constitutional Court judges. How do you see the current situation of the judiciary from the perspective of journalists?

There are unreconcilable contradictions between the letter of the law and trial practices in Turkey. Following the transformation of the judicial mechanism to a useful tool by the AKP government, especially after 2015, it is not possible to speak of the law or justice for anyone, including journalists. The arbitrariness and lack of oversight over the judiciary has come to such a point that the law is not only violated due to political expediency. The personal ambitions of a prosecutor can result in an investigation.

In my case, it was more than clear how arbitrary things had become. It was a clear example of how abuse of duty and personal ties can result in the full violation of the freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the freedom of persons. I was lucky to be acquitted at the first hearing after 100 days in pre-trial detention. That I was arrested due to a charge which would not result in imprisonment event if I were found guilty, something “that carries no prison time” as the common expression goes, shows that the main reason for the investigation and the ensuing trial was not to reveal the truth but to punish me.

* We know that you were taken from one prison to another after you were arrested. What was the reason?

As I mentioned, no one had been arrested under TMK 6/1 before. This resulted in a tragicomical sequence of events when I was first taken to prison. As you know, in prisons, those in prison for political reasons and those in remand for judicial reasons are housed separately. The charge listed in the decision for my arrest put me in a bit of a limbo. (Laughs.)

The Type L prison, where I was first taken to, would not accept me because I was not a judicial criminal, while the No. 2 Type F and High Security Prison where I was taken to next would not accept me because I was not “in remand for membership of an organization.” Prison administrations which had never come across such a reason for an arrest were a bit baffled at my arrival. Finally, after long phone conversations, the No. 1 Type F prison that would take me decided to put me in a single-person cell because there were no other inmates in remand over a similar charge.

* You are well known for your reporting on rights violations in prisons. It is a violation that you spent 100 days alone in a prison. Which other violations did you get to observe?

I was kept in absolute isolation for 100 days. Many of my rights, especially my right to have a conversation, were violated and I was not allowed the smallest contact, let alone time with other inmates. I had often reported on general conditions and rights violations at prisons in Turkey, but directly experiencing prison conditions showed me once again what a superficial view of prisons we journalists have of prisons. It was very striking to experience all aspects of the methods of psychological torture which the state employs as a policy of special warfare. In addition, I faced an approach to prison administration which prevented me from even enjoying the right to read and accessing my letters, limited access to newspapers and television channels and tried to completely obstruct my communication with the outside world.

* The decision for your arrest listed justifications such as “flight risk” and “evidence not having been collected.” Monthly routine objections to your remand were refused over the same demand. Yet a day before your arrest, you had gone to a police station to sign your name as per the obligation imposed on you.

A decision for arrest is a precautionary measure. There are certain conditions for it. These may be presenting a risk of flight, presenting a risk of obscuring evidence or the charge pertaining to “catalogue crimes.” In my case, none of this was true. I faced three investigations in the past year due to my journalistic activities. These investigations imposed judicial control measures on me and I have abided by all of them. One of the first cases filed against me was also a TMK 6/1 charge. I was acquitted. To list these risks without there being any good grounds for suspicion of flight is just a device. In this case, we cannot even talk about the possibility of obscuring the evidence. The basis of my reporting was the Official Gazette. Was access to that issue of the Gazette blocked? Of course not. With the evidence there for all to see, the suspicion of “obscuring the evidence” added another level to the arbitrariness.

* At present, dozens of journalists are in prison for their professional activities. As a journalist who has just been released, do you think solidarity with imprisoned journalists on the outside is adequate?

Unfortunately, solidarity with journalists under attack from the judiciary is very limited. Kurdish journalists who face the most pressure are the most deprived of solidarity. We see how the monistic mentality plays out in every political and social approach and finds its audience. Those who are ready with their reactions when it is “well-known opposition journalists” only scream silently when it comes to Kurdish journalists. In the example of Turkey, what you need to realize is that Kurds were the primary test subject of all forms of oppression of the Republic. All forms of pressure tried out on Kurds is later practiced against all other dynamics in Turkey. For this reason, solidarity with Kurdish politicians or journalists is also a response to attacks which will be directed your way tomorrow; it is to defend the dignity of journalism. Attacks on journalists are at the same time attacks on society. They are efforts to prevent the right of society to be informed. Societies which are denied the right to be informed become open to attempts by governments to corrupt, blunt and blind them. And this is a “good” way of consolidating society; to turn it into masses which do not react to wrong policies. For this reason, we need to see attacks on journalism as a societal issue and to fight against them from this perspective.

* Finally, tell us about how you got into journalism. Why did you pick a profession whose members face so many investigations and arrests? And why do you think journalists are targeted so much?

I started journalism three years ago at Mezopotamya News Agency. Right from my first years in the profession, I faced judicial harassment like all other Kurdish journalists who work in Turkey and the Kurdish provinces. In all periods, certain and varying methods of pressure are used to criminalize journalism, to make it lose its edge and to empty it out, essentially to make it “harmless” to governments or those in power. This is not something that is specific to the AKP period, or that can be reduced to a mindset that applies only in Turkey or the Middle East. However you consider it, what we do is to defend the truth. This is why journalism is a target for those who are against the truth, who use manipulative politics as a means to power.

In our geography, with monism being the greatest problem and most deeply rooted societal crisis of the Republic for the last 100 years, the free press and especially Kurdish journalists who voice the demands of the Kurdish people, who give voice to the struggle for democracy and who report for the peoples are being posited as “elements which need to be dissolved.” However, due to its well-rooted and resistant tradition, Kurdish journalism has never given up on carrying out what the profession requires, even when newspaper premises were bombed, journalists were murdered by unknown assailants or were punished by detentions and arrests. As someone who belongs to such a tradition, I continue to uphold the basics of journalism, not to refrain from making some people uncomfortable and to continue to defend the truth in the face of manipulation.