As the European Court of Human Rights watches

3 May 2018

If this desire and speed for handing down punishments continues at this rate, not a single journalist will remain imprisoned pending trial. They will all be serving prison terms after a conviction. The main goal is to render ECtHR court rulings useless by issuing convictions. 

Veysel Ok

*This article originally appeared in Turkish and German in the Taz newspaper on 3 May 2018 World Press Day

Nedim is only 28 years old.

He is a journalist. And at that, he is a great journalist.

He was given eight years and nine months in prison by a Turkish court on charges of membership in a terrorist organization. He is currently imprisoned at the Van High-Security Closed Penitentiary.

Some readers might already know exactly which news report landed him in jail. But it is useful to repeat so that it will be known by all why the authorities have chosen to imprison Nedim.

The news report he published included footage filmed in August 2015. It showed several special operations officers, with dozens of civilians lying down faces on the ground with their hands tied behind them in Yüksekova. The officers were hurling insults, racist remarks and threats at their detainees. And towards the end of the footage, one officer could be heard making a promise: “You will see the power of the Turk..”

It was thanks to Nedim’s report that we came to know of this footage. Even the state took it seriously, and the public officers in the video were investigated after its release.

Nedim reported on the abuse of civilians at the hands of officers who took their authority and power from the state.

Punished instead of being rewarded

It was after this point that it all started. Nedim received scores of threats and faced an investigation after the release of his report. And eventually, he was arrested as part of an investigation which was based on purely fictitious accusations, and later convicted on terror charges. A news report that would have been awarded a prize in any normal country became the reason for a young journalist’s incarceration in Turkey.

Nedim was subject to abuse, threats and insults as he was detained. He communicated this to the judges, demanding a criminal investigation into the officers who detained him during his court proceedings. But the “independent and impartial” judiciary of Turkey was deaf to these complaints. No action was taken against the perpetrators.

Once the proceedings against Nedim started, the public was faced with an even more horrid reality.

Every single witness who had testified against Nedim during the investigation phase saying that he was tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party changed testimony, saying they had no idea who Nedim was and that they had testified under pressure and physical abuse.

This is where the fiction became clear. The authorities didn’t want to include his news report alone when they were going after Nedim. They forced witnesses to testify against him.

The court, however, completely ignored all witness testimony which clearly stated that the witnesses didn’t know Nedim, and that their testimony was extracted under pressure.

Indeed, an entirely fictitiously formed investigation, several social media posts and witnesses who told the judge that they didn’t know Nedim were the bases for the harsh prison sentence handed down to Nedim.

Visit to Nedim

After Nedim’s conviction, we visited him in prison in Van, bringing him a letter signed by six international freedom of speech organizations. He greeted us with a smile. He looked strong and peaceful. He said he was reading books in English, trying to learn German, writing poetry and responding to the many letters of support he has been receiving.

Not even saying a word about the injustice he himself suffered, he said there should be more solidarity shown for the  other imprisoned journalists in the region.

Indeed, as Nedim suggests, it is of primary importance to show solidarity with journalists under pressure. Especially those imprisoned in prisons across Anatolia. Because their conditions are worse than those in Istanbul prisons, and their access to justice and international solidarity more limited.

Nedim Türfent's lawyers Barış Oflas (L) and Veysel Ok in front of Van Prison.

According to data from the Media and Law Studies Association, currently, 181 journalists and media workers are in prison. This is well above the combined number of imprisoned journalists in other countries.

Although Turkish authorities take every opportunity to claim that those in prison are not journalists but terrorists, the only evidence against a majority of those in prison is usually a news report, article or a social media post.

Politicians make an effort to criminalize journalism. But what about the judiciary?

The judges who try journalists in court display a very strong inclination towards:

Punishing journalism.

Their purpose is to close cases as fast as possible, without so much as evaluating defense statements or objections, and hand down the highest possible prison terms.

If this desire and speed for handing down punishments continues at this rate, not a single journalist will remain imprisoned pending trial. They will all be serving prison terms after a conviction. They will be facing life or prison terms of tens of years. It will be even more difficult for them to get out. Their time in prison will be extended.

So far, Turkish courts have given harsh sentences in all journalism trials, starting with the Altans trial, where four journalists and two others were given aggravated life sentences. A similar conclusion marked the end of the trial of 28 journalists, including columnist Murat Aksoy and singer Atilla Taş.

What lies beneath this inclination is to hand down verdicts is to make sure that the defendants are convicted before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) rules on their applications. That way, even if a ruling is issued, it will be useless because the defendant’s status has changed as all applications filed after the coup attempt have claimed unlawful pre-trial and mid-trial detention. For journalists who are convicted, this status changes from a detainee to a convict. This means that the defendants in these cases will have to file a new application at the European Court, putting off their possible release even further into the future.

Yes, 3 May is World Press Freedom Day. 181 journalists are in prison. Some are serving time after a conviction, some are arrested pending trial. Politicians are criminalizing journalism, the government media is targeting journalists, the courts are punishing them -- all that while the European Court is simply watching.