Journalist Beyza Kural, lawyer Meriç Eyüboğlu and journalism trade union representatives Gülfem Karataş and Elif Akgül discussed the increasing police brutality against journalists in Turkey and impunity
Increasing police brutality targeting journalists in Turkey was one of the major issues highlighted in Expression Interrupted’s latest Freedom of Expression and the Press Agenda report published earlier this week and covering a two-month period between May and June 2021. During the reporting period, dozens of journalists were assaulted by the police during news coverage; some of them were violently arrested while others faced physical violence. Additionally, at least five journalists were physically attacked by civilians.
Expression Interrupted hosted an online panel on 28 July to discuss this major issue affecting all journalists working in the field. Moderated by journalist Meltem Akyol, the panel featured journalist Beyza Kural, Lawyer Meriç Eyüboğlu, Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) Women and LGBTI+ Commission member Gülfem Karataş and DİSK Basın-İş trade union Executive Board member Elif Akgül as its speakers. In addition to the increasing police brutality, the panelists also discussed the effects of this year’s General Directorate of Security circular prohibiting all audio and video recording during public demonstrations, impunity, and how journalists will fight against police brutality.
Police brutality got "democratized"
Elif Akgül, journalist and an executive board member of the Press and Publishing Workers’ Union of Turkey (DİSK Basın-İş), was among journalists targeted by the police during a demonstration held on 2 February in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district in support of Boğaziçi University students who had been protesting the school’s government-appointed rector. Police tried to violently arrest Akgül, who escaped detention at the last minute thanks to the intervention of other reporters covering the demonstration. Citing her experience in the field as an example, Akgül said that brutality against journalists has not increased, but became more visible, adding that police brutality has become “democratized”:
“Police brutality is the biggest problem faced by dissident journalists working in the field. Previously this brutality used to specifically target socialist and Kurdish journalists, but lately it has also started targeting mainstream media. I see this more as a ‘democratization’ of violence rather than an increase.”
Pointing out an increase in violence against journalists during times of conflict, Akgül said: “The reason we are exposed to this brutality is that we are there. Police tried to arrest me because I was recording their intervention in the Boğaziçi demonstration, and this was a disturbance for them. Our professional presence in the field as reporters is regarded as a problem.”
Adding to the already increasing police brutality against journalists, Turkey’s General Directorate of Security issued a circular in late April, prohibiting all audio and video recording by journalists -- and bystanders -- during public demonstrations. According to the circular, legal action will be taken against anyone who records such footage during protests. The circular also claimed that sharing audio and video recordings of citizens and police officers recorded during protests on social media amounted to “a violation of one’s private life and illegal processing of personal data” and that such recordings “prevented police officers from performing their duties.”
Akgül said the circular, which is against the Constitution, has become a tool to legitimize police brutality against reporters working in the field. “The circular is a huge threat against journalism,” Akgül said, adding: “Journalists will be subject to more police violence and prevented from performing their duties on the grounds that they ‘violated the circular.’ This is worrisome, because it may make journalists hesitant in reporting on police violence, which will lead to self-censorship. This is the biggest threat.”
Stating that solidarity and unionization is the best method for combating police brutality targeting journalists, Akgül added that readers should also stand up for their right to information.
"Journalists are afraid to complain"
TGS’s Women and LGBTI+ Commission member Gülfem Karataş, a former reporter for the shuttered İMC TV, had her share of police brutality when she and 21 other journalists were violently arrested on 16 August 2016, when police teams raided Özgür Gündem newspaper’s Istanbul office to enforce a court decision ordering the temporary closure of the pro-Kurdish newspaper. Furthermore, Karataş and 21 other journalists are charged with “insulting a public official” and “preventing police officers from performing their duty” in an ongoing criminal case, launched in 2018 upon a complaint by the officers who arrested them.
Recounting that day during the panel, Karataş said: “The İMC TV cameraman was assaulted by the police as we were shooting the police raid on the newspaper. I screamed as a reaction to the violent treatment against my co-worker. My scream was intended to let the public learn of the violence targeting the journalists there. That scream showed everyone what exactly happened there that day. All the journalists in the building were beaten and subjected to physical violence and psychological pressure. If you are a woman, the psychological pressure on you is much greater. We were kept in detention for four days. We were a large group and we were able to overcome the psychological pressure caused by the detention through solidarity.”
As for the recent police brutality faced by journalists, Karataş said that TGS is ready to file criminal complaints on behalf of their members who have been subjected to violence but that the journalists are afraid of taking legal action: “They are worried that if they file a criminal complaint, the violence they face will increase since they are already known [by the police]. This worry is rooted in impunity. The journalists are refraining from taking legal action to protect themselves and to be able to continue their profession.”
Stressing the importance of solidarity in combating police brutality, Karataş added: “We ignore [police] violence because we are all striving to do our jobs. This is a battleground. The struggle for one's daily bread is understandable, but journalists carry out a public duty, which is informing the society. We must also continue to fight for this. Our voices will be louder if we act in solidarity. If we do not ignore the violence we are exposed to, we can continue to do our job by protecting each other and preventing violence.”
"Impunity is the reason behind violations of press freedom"
Our third panelist, Beyza Kural, a former reporter for Bianet, was violently detained by the police on 6 November 2015 as she was covering a demonstration in the Istanbul University. Although Kural presented her press card and told she was a press member, the police tried to violently cuff her behind her back. Kural and her lawyer Meriç Eyüboğlu filed a complaint against the officers following the incident but the public prosecutor ruled for non-prosecution, after which Kural took her case to the Constitutional Court.
The Constitutional Court judgment rendered in January 2021 held that Kural’s arrest violated three provisions of the Constitution: freedom of expression, freedom of the press and prohibition of ill-treatment. Following the judgment, the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office issued an indictment against the police officers, charging them with “Violation of the freedom to work or labor by using force, threats or by any other unlawful act” under Article 117/1 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). The trial, overseen by the Istanbul 35th Criminal Court of First Instance, got underway on 23 June.
Recounting the police’s attempt to arrest her, Kural said she was covering the violent intervention in the student protest when the officers pushed her away and then attempted to arrest her despite seeing her press card. “After I showed them my press card, the police told me, ‘Nothing will be the same, we will teach you this’ and cuffed me behind my back. With the help of fellow journalists there, I was released without being placed in the detention vehicle,” Kural said. Stressing that violations of press freedom in Turkey are widespread because of impunity, Kural said the police officers will continue the same practice because of the non-prosecution decision.
Kural added that the General Directorate of Security circular prohibiting audio and video recording during demonstrations was against the law: “The police consider this circular as the grounds to prevent all journalists. Ever since the circular, many journalists in Ankara and Istanbul have been prevented by the police from doing their jobs. The police are confident. However, the case filed against the police officers based on the Constitutional Court’s judgment still shows that they do not have the state’s full support. They shouldn't trust themselves too much.”
Kural underlined that police brutality should not be covered up and that journalists subjected to such violence should definitely take legal action.
"The way to prevent violence is to take legal action"
Our fourth panelist, Lawyer Meriç Eyüboğlu, said that although a criminal case has been launched against the police officers following the Constitutional Court’s judgment, the indictment was issued in such a manner that the officers will eventually be acquitted: “The indictment was issued super fast, even without collecting all the evidence. Also, the accusation in the indictment is not ill-treatment and assault, as determined by the Constitutional Court, but violation of freedom to work. Violation of freedom of expression was also ignored in the indictment.”
Eyüboğlu added that it was still important that the Constitutional Court rendered a judgment finding a violation of Kural’s rights, albeit belatedly. “Journalists are hesitant to complain about police brutality, thinking they will come across the same officers while covering another demonstration. However, the way to prevent violence is to complain about such situations,” she said.
Eyüboğlu continued: “2015 and beyond have been very tough for the whole society. The words of the police who told Beyza Kural that nothing was going to be the same anymore were intended as a message to all journalists and the society as a whole.”
“Not prosecuting state officials is a historical state tradition in Turkey. It is not specific to the current AKP government. But, the practice of impunity is now much more prevalent,” Eyüboğlu said.