Barış Terkoğlu, Ferhat Çelik and Aydın Keser released pending trial, Barış Pehlivan, Hülya Kılınç, Murat Ağırel ordered to remain behind bars; next hearing set for 9 September
The trial of seven journalists and one municipal press officer over news coverage and social media posts about a National Intelligence Organization (MİT) operative killed in Libya in February got underway on 24 June 2020 at the 34th High Criminal Court of Istanbul.
Odatv journalists Barış Pehlivan, Barış Terkoğlu and Hülya Kılınç, Yeni Yaşam daily’s Chief Editor Ferhat Çelik and Responsible Editor Aydın Keser, and Yeniçağ columnist Murat Ağırel had been jailed pending trial since March as part of the case. BirGün columnist Erk Acarer, who lives abroad, and municipal press officer Eren Ekinci, who was released after giving his statement earlier in the investigation, are the remaining two defendants in the case. If convicted, the accused face up to 18 years in prison on the charges of “disclosing classified information crucial to the security and interests of the state” and “exposing the contents of documents and information concerning intelligence operations.”
P24 monitored the hearing, where the six jailed journalists and defense lawyers were in attendance. Ekinci connected to the hearing via the video-conferencing system SEGBİS.
Independent lawmaker Ahmet Şık, HDP MPs Oya Ersoy and Hüda Kaya, TİP Chairman Erkan Baş, CHP lawmakers Utku Çakırözer, Mahmut Tanal and Ali Şeker were among spectators who came to the courthouse to monitor the hearing. However, due to Covid-19 containment measures, only 12 spectators were allowed into the courtroom.
After the presiding judge summarized the indictment, Erk Acarer’s lawyer Ömer Faruk Eminağaoğlu addressed the court. Eminağaoğlu said that on the grounds that his client had been residing abroad for the past 3 years, a trial cannot be launched against him. Citing Article 244/2 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CMK), which stipulates that trials may not be launched against absentee defendants and that only evidence may be collected, the lawyer requested the matter to be recorded and for his client to not be included in the trial.
Saying that an arrest warrant was issued against Acarer, the court ruled for the continuation of the arrest warrant and decided to review his lawyer’s request later. Ali Deniz Ceylan, another lawyer representing Acarer, asked the court to take his client’s defense statement through a letter rogatory.
Jailed defendant Murat Ağırel took the stand next, telling the court he had been kept in solitary confinement for the past 120 days over accusations that were not based on concrete evidence. The columnist said that the indictment claimed that he had been the first person to share photos of the dead intelligence operative. However, the columnist said that he had come across on social media a post by a local headman announcing the death of the officer and where his funeral service would be held. In the comments below, there was further information about the event and photos of the officer. Ağırel said that he shared a tweet based on the information already available on social media, with the intention of honoring the martyrdom of the officer. The tweet was removed 43 minutes later when his account was hacked, Ağırel told the court. He also said when he shared his post he didn’t know that the casualty was a MİT operative.
Reminding that president Erdoğan was the first person to announce MİT’s presence in Libya, Ağırel said in reality he was being prosecuted over Odatv’s critical coverage about FETÖ. He ended his defense by saying: “I have faith that your court will make a decision that will soothe the public conscience and bring an end to this injustice and unlawfulness.” The columnist requested to be released and acquitted.
Following a brief recess, Yeni Yaşam journalist Keser addressed the court. Rejecting the allegations against him, Keser said he had been unjustly and unlawfully kept in solitary confinement for the past four months. Their report, claimed in the indictment to have exposed the news, was based on other news reports and information already available online.
The editor also said he could see his wife only once during the time he had spent in solitary confinement. He said he had been suffering from a heart condition before being arrested and had experienced issues related to his condition in prison. However, he was not allowed to receive treatment due to Covid-19. He said his detention had also negatively impacted the financial condition of his wife and children and requested to be released.
Yeni Yaşam daily’s Editor-in-Chief Ferhat Çelik took the stand next. Çelik stressed that journalism in Turkey was financially and politically difficult at this period. “When the president states, ‘We have several martyrs in Libya,’ people are curious about their identities. At the time people were sharing news on social media about the martyrs. If journalists come across consistent and reasonable news from open sources, they cover it. You do not need to ‘receive orders’ to report on news. But right now journalism is in a condition where if the president says there are martyrs, you’re supposed to not write about it. If you do write about it, they claim you ‘received orders’.”
Çelik continued: “No one knew these people were MİT operatives. At least that’s not what we saw from open sources.” Çelik said the indictment claimed that Yeni Yaşam was the first newspaper to publish the news in print, but their printed report was not named in the indictment. The headline read, “Allegation that a colonel lost his life,” and the story did not mention he was a MİT operative. Saying that he did not read the report, Çelik added: “But since my name is on the masthead, whether or not I read them, I am responsible for every single page of the newspaper. As a journalist I cannot know who is a MİT agent and who is not. We copy-and-pasted from open sources. How is this espionage?”
Çelik continued: “Since our report would put the security of the state at risk, why did they wait for 12 days and did not ask us to remove it? Which information in the report is being considered the state’s classified secret? It is known by all that the Turkish Armed Forces is in Libya. The President himself talks about MİT’s presence in Libya. What have we exposed? We are journalists, we are public servants. Musa Anter, Hrant Dink, Metin Göktepe, Uğur Mumcu, Abdi İpekçi paid the price for their journalism with their lives. I draw inspiration from these journalists. In the public conscience, we have already been acquitted. We ask the court to legally confirm that verdict.” The journalist requested to be acquitted.
Following another recess, Hülya Kılınç delivered her defense statement. Kılınç said this was the first time in her 20-year career as a local journalist that she is accused of such a heavy crime and made to appear before a high criminal court. She said, “The indictment describes my going to the place where the martyr was buried, my meetings with the local headman, the Akhisar Municipality press officer and the martyr’s family as secret acts done with the intention to commit a crime. This has nothing to do with reality.
“During the investigation I didn’t reveal the names of the headman I interviewed and the press officer who gave me the two photographs. I am a journalist; according to Press Law, I do not have to reveal my sources. Also these people were just performing their duties when they gave me the information for the report I was preparing. When an investigation was launched about the report, I didn’t want them to be included in the file because of me.
“I reported that the martyr had been buried in Manisa and that an official ceremony was not held for him. What I have done is journalism. In the report, there isn’t anything to suggest that MİT operatives were in the photo. If the people who shared posts without knowing he was a MİT agent are not accused, neither should I be.
“In conclusion, it is not true that I disclosed, published and spread the state’s classified information or that I openly exposed the identity, duty and rank of a MİT operative. I am not the one who exposed anything; by claiming there was a MİT operative there, if this claim is true, the prosecution is doing the exposing. This isn’t fair. I do not believe I have committed a crime. I request to be released and acquitted,” Kılınç concluded.
The court next heard Odatv Editor-in-Chief Pehlivan’s defense statement. He said the MİT operative’s identity had been revealed before their report was published and that something already exposed cannot be re-exposed.
Pehlivan presented several reports published by other media organizations on MİT operatives and questioned why Odatv, which he said had always been careful to not expose MİT officers, was being targeted. The journalist said that he was facing charges because of his critical reporting about FETÖ and that the goal was to make him pay for his criticism and to silence him.
After Pehlivan, Odatv News Director Barış Terkoğlu addressed the court for his defense statement. Terkoğlu said an indictment should be supported with evidence, not with fabrications. The journalist said that the only reason he was facing charges was because he was Odatv’s news director and that an “operation was being conducted against Odatv.” Terkoğlu also explained that the indictment referred to a Constitutional Court judgment where part of the top court’s ruling reportedly read “... even if the [information] has already been exposed…” but that there was no such statement in the said judgment.
Addressing the court next via SEGBİS, Akhisar Municipality press officer Ekinci rejected all the accusations against him. He said he took photos at the funeral because the mayor had attended it and he stopped after the family of the deceased asked him not to take photos. Ekinci said he found out that it was the funeral of a MİT operative only after news reports were published. He said he wouldn’t have taken the photos if he had known.
After hearing the defendants, the court heard the witnesses. In her testimony, Yeni Yaşam journalist Semiha Alankuş told the court she was out of town when the report was published but that at their newspaper there was respect for editorial independence and no one interfered with the editor’s report.
The second witness, Cemali Merter, the headman of the village in Akhisar, Manisa, where the MİT operative was buried, addressed the court next via SEGBİS. He said they initially thought the deceased was an army electrician until Kılınç called him to ask whether she could visit the dead man’s family and ask them a few questions.
Afterwards, the prosecutor asked the court to deliver the case file to the prosecution for the preparation of their final opinion. The prosecutor also requested to wait for the execution of the arrest warrant against Erk Acarer and the continuation of the pre-trial detention of all six jailed journalists.
Defense lawyers then took turns to request the release of their clients.
Following a 45-minute recess, the court issued its interim ruling, ordering the release of Barış Terkoğlu, Aydın Keser and Ferhat Çelik under an international travel ban and the continuation of Barış Pehlivan, Hülya Kılınç and Murat Ağırel’s detention on remand. The trial was adjourned until 9 September.