Eighteen journalists, nearly all of whom work for Kurdish media outlets, stood trial at hearings across Turkey this week.
Lawyers and media rights groups say the trials show how Turkey’s laws on terrorism and protests can be used to detain or harass journalists.
Nearly all those in court this week face accusations of belonging to or creating propaganda for a terrorist organization—often a reference to the militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Others face charges of defying Law 2911, which regulates public meetings and demonstrations, according to the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), a Turkey-based group that offers legal support to journalists.
Media who cover protests can sometimes be accused of organizing an illegal gathering. And in April, Turkey’s Interior Ministry issued an order requiring journalists to have permits for covering approved protests.
Some rights lawyers have said the ruling appears designed to silence journalists.
“The order is problematic because it only recognizes journalists who are given permits by the government to cover protests,” said Erselan Aktan, an Istanbul-based lawyer who has represented dozens of journalists in recent years.
“It doesn’t consider freelance journalists and those who work for opposition media outlets as journalists and this is against the core of the freedom of expression,” he told VOA.
One of those in court this week on charges of defying the law on protests was freelance journalist Rusen Takva.
The journalist, who contributes to the pro-opposition Arti TV, was charged in connection with his coverage of a protest calling for Kurdish rights, in the eastern Turkish city of Van in January.
A prosecutor had recommended that Takva be sentenced to 18 years in prison. But at a hearing on Tuesday, a new prosecutor dropped the charges, citing a lack of evidence.
“It was clear from the beginning that this case was not holding,” Takva said. “I was merely doing my job as a journalist. When the original prosecutor was replaced, the new prosecutor concluded that there was no evidence to support the charges against me.”
Others on trial have cases going back more than four years, like journalist Hayri Demir, who worked for outlets including the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency.
In 2017, authorities charged Demir with belonging to and creating propaganda for the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington.
The journalist’s case has received media attention because evidence presented in the indictment included photographs from a memory stick that was stolen from Demir’s home in Ankara.
The images were taken by Demir while he was on assignment in northeast Syria in 2015.
“Six months after that robbery, the pictures on that card came out in the court as evidence in my case file for my conviction,” Demir told VOA.
“My previous telephone conversations with Selahattin Demirtas were also included in my court file as a crime.”
Demirtas, a former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has been in prison since 2016 on terror charges.
The journalist had his ninth hearing Tuesday, but the case remains open with the hearing adjourned. If Demir is convicted, he could face up to 22 years in prison.
Turkey’s Interior Ministry and Ankara’s High Criminal Court didn’t respond to VOA requests for comment.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month that Turkish media is “incomparably free,” and that he does not accept the findings of media rights groups that show mass arrests.
“We don't have any problems of that nature in terms of freedoms,” Erdogan told U.S. broadcaster CBS.
But media lawyer Aktan said that arrests and trials are common.
In September alone, 65 journalists had hearings across Turkey, mostly on terror-related charges, defying the protest law or insulting the head of state, Aktan said.
The country’s media came under pressure following a failed attempted coup in 2016, after which Ankara arrested dozens of journalists it accused of supporting or being sympathetic to the coup.
As of August, data by the Stockholm Center for Freedom, an advocacy groups that documents human rights abuses with a special focus on Turkey, showed 174 journalists either detained pending trial or serving sentences and a further 167 accused of a crime but who are in exile or at large.
Turkey also ranks poorly on the World Press Freedom Index, coming in at 153 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the freest, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.
Correction: Paragraph 22 has been updated to correctly reflect Aktan's role.