Spate of trials in Turkey on “terrorist propaganda” charges

The end of the summer break in Turkey means the resumption of trials of journalists. More than 50 are being prosecuted for “terrorist propaganda,” a catch-all charge that the Turkish justice system has been using for more than 25 years to silence criticism and curb debate, especially about Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

Use of this poorly-defined charge has grown again in recent years with President Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic tendencies and ever-tougher line on the Kurdish issue. As of 1 July, a total of 57 journalists and media workers were charged with “propaganda for a terrorist organization” or with “publishing terrorist organization’s statements.”

“Media freedom is part of the solution to the Kurdish issue” (2015)Read the reportThey include Sibel Hürtaş, the correspondent of the exile TV channel Artı TV, and Hayri Demir, a reporter for the pro-Kurdish news agency Mezopotamya, whose trial resumes today. The representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Turkey will attend as an observer.

Hürtaş and Demir are facing up to 18 years in prison on charges of “inciting hatred” and “propaganda” on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been locked in an armed conflict with the Turkish state for decades.

The charges are based on their coverage of the Turkish military’s operations in northern Syria’s Afrin region and their social network posts on this subject. The prosecution is using extracts from Hürtaş’s interviews with politicians as part of its case against her.

Criticizing Turkey’s intervention in Afrin

Hürtaş and Demir, who are being tried along with ten other people, spent three days in police custody in January, shortly after Turkey’s intervention in Afrin began. The military operations triggered hundreds of arrest warrants against Internet users suspected of “terrorist propaganda.” Nurcan Baysal, a columnist with the T24 news website, spent two days in police custody because of tweets critical of the intervention.

İshak Karakaş, the editor of the newspaper Halkın Nabzı and a columnist for the exile news website Artı Gerçek, was arrested in late January and was not released until the start of May, when his trial on a charge of “PKK propaganda” got under way. RSF attended the initial hearing, at which he pleaded innocent and insisted that he served the cause of peace.

“The content that I shared online consisted of articles and comments that do not represent any political party and do not consist of terrorist propaganda,” Karakaş testified. His trial will resume on 18 September and he continues to face a possible prison sentence if found guilty.

“The persecution of journalism is diverting the justice system from the legitimate task of combatting terrorism,” RSF Turkey representative Erol Önderoğlu said. “A complete overhaul of the terrorism law and a return to the rule of law would be of much greater help in combatting the real threats that Turkey faces. We call for the withdrawal of all charges against journalists and bloggers who are being prosecuted just for doing their job.”

TV channel accused of defending both PKK and IS

In a country where the authorities tolerate no deviation from the official line, the “terrorist propaganda” accusations are often very absurd. The trial of the three people who ran Hayatın Sesi TV, a left-wing channel that was summarily closed in October 2016, is a good example.

The channel’s editor in chief, Gökhan Çetin, and its two owners, Mustafa Kara and İsmail Gökhan Bayram, are accused of “constant propaganda on behalf of three terrorist organizations” although the three organizations named in the indictment – the PKK, the small, radical Kurdish group TAK and Islamic State – have conflicting aims and ideologies.

The terrorism law, a favourite tool of repression

Turkey’s terrorism law, the TMK, was adopted in April 1991, at a time of frequent armed clashes with the PKK and when Turkey was partly under a state of emergency. Article 7.2 of the law, establishing the crime of “terrorist propaganda,” has been a favourite tool of repression for all governments ever since, helping to restrict debate about the Kurdish issue.

Despite some amendments, including the insertion of a reference to violence in 2013, “terrorist propaganda” has continued to be a catch-all charge that allows the politicized justice system to prosecute journalists for the opinions they express.

After a let-up, the number of trials soared again when peace talks between the government and PKK ended in 2015 and criminalization of the Kurdish political class resumed. RSF’s Turkey representative, Önderoğlu, has himself been charged with “terrorist propaganda” along with 40 other people who took part in a campaign of solidarity with the newspaper Özgür Gündem.

The already worrying state of Turkey’s media has become critical since an abortive coup in July 2016. Around 150 media outlets have been closed, mass trials are being held and the country now holds the world record for the number of professional journalists detained. Turkey is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.