Turkey’s coup probe being used to crush independent media

Turkey’s coup probe being used to crush independent media

Photo: former Zaman columnist Şahin Alpay (72), who was arrested in the coup probe under a highly questionable court decision

The entire world has been watching Turkey closely since the night of 15 July, the night of a heinous coup attempt that left hundreds, both civilians and police officers, dead and thousands wounded. To investigate the networks and people behind the failed coup, on July 23 the country declared a Sate of Emergency, which will last at least 90 days. Few weeks after the coup, it looks increasingly likely that the authorities will abuse the Sate of Emergency conditions in place.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as other government officials have accused Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric in self-exile in the US, and his wide network of followers in Turkey to be behind the coup attempt.

So far 42 journalists have been arrested as part of the investigation into the coup attempt. Almost all of them have worked or wrote for Zaman, the flagship of the Gülen movement.

The government’s accusations against its former allies seem to have a reasonably sound basis and foreign dignitaries are also starting to acknowledge this possibility. However, the Turkish president’s long-standing and increasing authoritarianism and his low credibility levels have created the image that State of Emergency was declared only to serve the government’s own purpose of purging critics.

The detentions and arrests of journalists that came after the failed coup might indeed mean that the State of Emergency conditions are not just for investigating the failed coup, but also for intimidating critics into silence. It appears that the authorities are disregarding basic principles of law such as due process and the presumption of innocence, but instead, rounding up people to try and gather evidence against them.

Concerns about journalists

Among the 42 journalists arrested so far in the investigation are Şahin Alpay and Lale Kemal, two former Zaman columnists, who had no links to the Fethullah Gülen movement.

Human rights activist and lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who also wrote for Zaman, together with some other Gülen-affiliated journalists, was briefly detained, questioned and released on an international travel ban. Additionally, officials have so far failed to produce convincing evidence that any of the other journalists who might have been associated with the movement in the past knew of the coup plot.

Holding people in prison without any solid evidence and based only on affiliation with the movement is unacceptable. Even the country’s president, whom the coup apparently sought to overthrow, has said he supported “this structure with good intentions” in the past. He has asked for forgiveness from God for contributing to Gülen-network’s members’ ascent inside the state and society.

In what was an unabashed display of riding roughshod over basic principles of law, the judges who ruled for the arrest of Şahin Alpay and six other journalists stated among the reasons for such ruling the fact that Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of Zaman, has left the country. The court further “reasoned” that the columnists should have known about the coup plot, citing a prior investigation and charges against Dumanlı. P24 has also heard of unconfirmed allegations from lawyers that they are being pressured into abandoning their arrested clients.

P24 has been keeping detailed logs of the detentions and arrests of journalists that came as part of the coup probe. Hundreds of media organizations have also been shut down since the coup attempt. Outside the coup probe, Kurdish journalists have been arrested under State of Emergency conditions.

There are also reports of seemingly arbitrary cancellations of passports, deportations of foreign journalists and even harassment of the relatives of some of the people who have been detained in the organization.

Pressure on families

Another worrying development has been serious allegations of harassment of suspects' families. Earlier, Tarik Korocu, the son of former Zaman columnist Bülent Korucu – who is wanted in the investigation –  had claimed that police had detained his mother hostage. Korucu’s wife Hacer Korucu was put under arrest on 9 August, and authorities have been mum on the charges against her. Tarık Korucu said she had been arrested for attending activities organized by the Fethullah Gülen community in the past. He has also claimed that the family was told openly that she would be released if Bülent Korucu turns himself in.

Daughter of Şahin Alpay, Elvan Alpay, recently announced her passport was confiscated at the Atatürk Airport, with officials offering no formal explanation; another troubling sign that there might be systematic intimidation policies targeting journalist families.

Detentions and arrests of Kurdish journalists

Outside the coup probe, many Kurdish journalists have been detained or arrested since the start of State of Emergency conditions.

On 10 August, Şermin Soydan, a reporter for the Kurdish DİHA news agency, appeared before a court facing life in prison for reporting on a secret operation by security forces. Soydan was taken into police custody on 14 May, before the State of Emergency, in Hakkari. The court delayed her hearing to a later time in September, and she will remain arrested until then.

There are currently 76 journalists in prison in Turkey,  pending trial or convicted for their journalism. There are dozens who are behind bars, waiting for an arraignment, and at least 40 others for whom detention warrants have been issued.

Even without looking at specific cases, there is significant grounds for extreme concern regarding detentions of journalist under State of Emergency rules: detainees aren’t allowed to see their lawyers in the first five days of their detention, which also means keeping the door open for maltreatment and torture. Under the State of Emergency, detention period has been extended to an unacceptable 30 days. For example, an editor for Haberdar, an online news portal, who was detained on 24 July  still hasn’t been referred to court.

Media and human rights groups are also gravely concerned about the health situation of older columnists and some younger journalists who are known to have serious health conditions.

If Turkey opts to use the coup probe as an opportunity to further crack down on free speech, instead of conducting a proper and serious investigation to international standards of fair trial and justice, it will undermine the investigation. Turkey should stop the practice of jailing journalists without due process if it wants to reverse the trend of declining media freedom and if it truly wants to ensure that a coup attempt never happens again.