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After 13 Months Behind Bars, Kurdish Journalists to Stand Trial

Supporters of a group of Kurdish journalists detained since June 2022 gather in Diyarbakir, Turkey, to protest the arrests. (Mahmut Bozarslan/VOA Turkish)
Supporters of a group of Kurdish journalists detained since June 2022 gather in Diyarbakir, Turkey, to protest the arrests. (Mahmut Bozarslan/VOA Turkish)

With the trial of 17 Kurdish journalists due to start in Turkey on Tuesday, lawyers and media analysts say prolonged judicial processes are being used as a punishment and deterrent.

The journalists were detained on June 8, 2022, but prosecutors did not release an indictment in their case until March of this year. Of the 17 facing charges, 14 have been kept in pretrial detention.

The group worked for pro-Kurdish media outlets including the Mesopotamia News Agency, a production company called Pel and the Dicle Firat Journalists Association.

Authorities accuse them of belonging to a terrorist organization — a reference to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK.

The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and European Union. Turkish forces for years have been engaged in a deadly conflict with the PKK, which wants control of predominantly Kurdish areas in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

But legal and media analysts say that journalists working for pro-Kurdish media often are at risk of arrest for alleged terrorism connections, and that Ankara uses the threat of legal action and lengthy pretrial detention as a form of harassment.

"If the Turkish judiciary is going to make a judicial harassment against journalists and activists who are independent or dissident, it arrests them without any evidence and then looks for evidence," said Veysel Ok, who is co-director of the Istanbul-based Media and Law Studies Association and a human rights lawyer.

He told VOA that under the penal code, arrests should take place only if police have a strong suspicion of a crime.

In an email to VOA, the Justice Ministry said the courts independence is guaranteed under Turkey's constitution.

"These issues raised are within the scope of jurisdiction and discretion and it is not possible for the Ministry to give a legal opinion on matters related to jurisdiction and discretion," the ministry said via email.

The local court in Diyarbakir and the Turkish Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA's requests for comment.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has previously dismissed claims that media are targeted.

"Everyone can write, say or express anything they want as long as they do not praise terrorism, promote violence or engage in disinformation," he said at a media awards ceremony in January.

Media raids

The journalists were first detained during a series of raids in Turkey's Diyarbakir province on June 8 last year in what a police official at the time described as an operation against the PKK "press committee structure."

Police initially detained 19 journalists before releasing four of them a week later pending further investigation.

Over the course of the past year, authorities dropped the case of one of those detained, and removed a second journalist — Safiye Alagas — from the main case.

Alagas was released last month pending the outcome of a separate trial scheduled for later in the year.

The award-winning journalist and managing editor of the all-female JIN News Agency told VOA that police questioned her about her work.

She said police asked her about JIN News reporters and their coverage, including on a Kurdish women's conference and on a mother who said that authorities mailed her son's remains to her when the PKK member was killed.

"They questioned why we covered this and what was the purpose of covering it," Alagas said, adding that police asked her if the PKK had requested that her news agency cover their stories.

Alagas said she was also questioned about the way that JIN News covered the case of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader who since 1999 has been serving a life sentence in Imrali, a prison on an island.

The reporting described Ocalan's status as "isolation." Ocalan was last allowed to see his lawyers in 2019 and to have a phone call with his brother in 2021.

But, Alagas said, "Police said the term of isolation is the PKK's lexicon. They asked why we used this term and if the PKK instructed it."

Alagas and the others facing trial have denied the accusations against them and say they are simply doing their jobs as journalists.

'Kurdish issue'

When the prosecutor's office in March released a 728-page indictment in the case, it cited as evidence content produced by the journalists and their media outlets, as well as their editorial preferences, said Resul Temur, one of the lawyers defending the journalists.

"Even the subjects they decided to cover in their programs were listed as evidence," Temur told VOA. "Considering news and journalistic activity as evidence shows that journalists' professional activities are being prosecuted.

The Kurdish issue is a red line for Turkey, said Ok from the Media and Law Studies Association. Any coverage risks making journalists — whether Kurdish or not — a target of the state, he said.

Two Strikes Against Them, Kurdish Journalists Keep Faith
Two Strikes Against Them, Kurdish Journalists Keep Faith

Ok cited the case of TELE1 editor-in-chief Merdan Yanardag who on June 20 "made a speech about the isolation of Abdullah Ocalan, and he was immediately arrested."

TELE1 has also been subjected to fines for its coverage.

"The government has made the Kurdish issue such a red line that it cannot tolerate criticism of its own policy. The government cannot stand any news on its rights violations and for this reason, any criticism of the government on the Kurdish issue is met with terrorism charges, and unfortunately, people are imprisoned for years," Ok said.

Turkey has one of the worst records for jailing journalists.

At least 40 were detained in connection with their work as of December 2022, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Of those, 15 are facing anti-state charges and the rest have not had charges released, the data shows.

The lawyer, Temur, said that the legal team has submitted an appeal to the Constitutional Court in Turkey on the basis that the arrests were unlawful, but they have not received a response yet. They also applied to the European Court of Human Rights.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include a response from the Justice Ministry that came after publication.

This story originated in VOA's Turkish Service. For the link in Turkish, click here.