Journalists’ weird relationship with the courthouse

28 January 2019
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Gökçer Tahincioğlu

The courthouse is a second home for journalists in Turkey. It’s normal to find yourself in court if you are dealing with operations, fraud, the fate of girls who burned to death in a dormitory, massacres or other irregularities.

Perhaps I should start with a recent and extremely meaningless debate on the issue of the mainstream media versus the alternative media. It’s no secret that the mainstream media can turn a blind eye to issues related with democracy in the country — probably because of the crooked relations among capital, political power and the media.

This is why we have the concept of “relative autonomy.” There are some journalists who shout what the media does not want to hear in the mainstream media, but on the whole, the mainstream media produces a large degree of daily news content, and only it is capable of providing routine news coverage — not only because it is an expensive task, but also because for other reasons, especially the question of accreditation.

On the contrary, the alternative media, which focuses on what is not heard, does not boast the resources to cover routine stories and daily politics; it also lacks news diversity. The number of alternative media outlets producing authentic content is unfortunately very small, some projects by a limited number of journalists notwithstanding.

The current mainstream media does not actually have the parameters of a mainstream media, as criticism has been reduced to zero.

 The mission of the alternative media, meanwhile, is primarily to resist. But you’ll create a problem if you discuss the issue over “opposition journalists” because if the ideas they espouse attained political power, then those people would become “government journalists.” In the end, what lies at the heart of the profession is not being oppositional but critical.

I was introduced to the courthouse in 1997, when I started my career as a professional journalist. Because I was not a law graduate and had never ended up in court for any incident, my only trip to court in the past was to go to Ankara Courthouse for a criminal background check.

But for a crime journalist working at the courthouse, it’s a must to know the judges and prosecutors. Unfortunately, it’s also an inevitability that you will appear as a witness or suspect before those same judges and prosecutors.

My court adventures began with prison scandals. I was put on trial twice following a news report on a jail warden who had offered his office to a jailed mafia leader who wanted some alone time with a woman. My report was accurate, but my sources were public employees. In my first trial, I was acquitted by a court, which, in a fairly progressive turn for Turkey, said the report “did not contradict the apparent truth.”

I was also questioned over a report on the operation at Ankara’s Ulucanlar Prison in 1999 that resulted in the death of 10 convicts. This time, the issue in question was my reports, which were based on the autopsy reports, on the ill treatment and torture that the convicts suffered before they died. In the end, the probe did not evolve into a lawsuit.

However, I was not that lucky in 2000 with the “Back to Life” operation (whose real name was “Typhoon”) to stop hunger strikes in prisons. I was put on trial when I reported — basing my story on the forensic report — that authorities had poured flammable substances from the chimney of the building and fired an excessive amount of tear gas during the Istanbul Bayrampaşa leg of the operation. The Gendarmerie General Command made a two-page public statement to rebuff my report, while also sending another 20-page text to the outlet I was working at. The report, however, contained no falsehoods, as it was based on a report prepared by the state’s forensics institute. I was acquitted in that case as well.

I was starting to get used to it. I was facing probes for influencing the judiciary, violating confidentiality or targeting somebody.

Every time I went to testify, I had to testify for six or seven probes or cases at a time. They were taking my statements at the court or prosecutor’s offices to avoid losing time — part of a Turkish style of justice to just “let things flow.”

Dozens of non-significant trials and probes were opening and closing, one after another.

But things reached a new level in 2007. When journalist Tolga Şardan and I reported that a member of the intelligence services approached the top judge of the Court of Cassation on behalf of convicted mafia leader Alaattin Çakıcı, who would later have his men repair the summer house of that judge, this triggered a reaction from the state.

This time, Şardan and I appeared at a Court with Special Authority in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district. All the information we reported was actually inside a probe file, which included the testimony of the accused Court of Cassation top judge. We were thus acquitted, but a probe on how we accessed the information would simply not end. What’s more, the judge, who had already testified in the probe, opened compensation lawsuits totaling a million liras against us. Some people tried to convince us to take a step back, but they failed in their efforts due to our persistence, meaning the high judge did not gain his compensation.

A few years later, I appeared in court with journalist Kemal Göktaş. Our crime was to report that former police intelligence chief Ramazan Akyürek, who is in jail today, signed a document requesting permission from courts to wiretap telephones across Turkey; the courts duly granted that permission. It was by no ways easy to reach that court order, which had remained secret for months. The special authority prosecutor issued arrest warrants for us, demanding that police take us from the gate of the Constitutional Court, where we had gone to report on a story. When newspapers devoted a lot of interest to the issue, the prosecutor’s office retreated from such a move, calling on us instead to testify the following day. We faced the risk of arrest, but we were able to walk out of the prosecutor’s office after testifying.

The report came at a time when the Ergenekon probes – an alleged military coup attempt – had just begun and our journalistic friends were warning us to be careful by citing sources.

But how were we supposed to be careful?

Our colleagues faced unjustified arrests and were deprived of their freedom for months.

If they weren’t arrested, they were discredited via illegal wiretappings. There were no ways of being careful — or else we would have had to quit our profession.

We testified in both Ankara and Istanbul in probes or lawsuits over our news reports. Even inspectors from the Justice Ministry wondered why we were supposed to have had phone calls with some of the Ergenekon suspects.

Following this period under threats, the circumstances changed. But in this new period, the probes and compensation trials over articles and news reports continued.

In this new period, there emerged a new method of directly arresting journalists or sending them to court with a demand for their arrest, instead of calling them to the courthouse for questioning. In this period, colleagues started keeping some small bags by the door in case they were sent to prison.

The trials and probes I have faced during my career are, of course, not particular to me. Dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists have survived until today after traveling down similar roads. They have had to struggle against joblessness, compensation cases and other problems amid the trials and probes.

In contrast to the past, however, many of them were arrested in these cases. Some colleagues were arrested or convicted because their reports were considered to be “terror crimes.” Later, it was also announced that they were in prison not for journalistic work but because of terrorism. Of course, everyone knew that the real reason was journalism, but this did not suit someone’s book.

Some of our colleagues were sent to prison both in the period when the Fethullah Gülen community dominated the judiciary and the following period for contradictory reasons.

Many of them still struggle with unemployment.

The courthouse is a second address for a journalist in Turkey, and it’s normal for a journalist to find him or herself in court if they’re dealing with operations, fraud, the fate of girls who burned to death in a dormitory, massacres or other irregularities. What isn’t normal is that everybody, especially journalists, considers all that is happening to be normal, thereby desensitizing all of us to this.

This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.