PEN Norway’s Turkey Adviser Caroline Stockford was present at Diyarbakır’s 4th High Criminal Court on 11 July, 2023 to monitor the first hearing in the case of 18 arrested Kurdish media workers, fifteen of whom had been in pre-trial detention since their arrest on 8th June, 2022.
The hearing took place in an overcrowded courtroom with no room for the defence lawyers to be seated. All 15 imprisoned defendants were led into the room handcuffed just after 09.45. The three defendants being tried whilst not in detention were also present. From a procedural perspective the lack of microphones made it difficult for observers to easily follow the defence statements of defendants and the comments of the lead judge.
Present in the room were representatives from media and human rights organisations MLSA, Bianet, Jin News, Yeni Yaşam, RSF, Turkey’s Journalists’ Union and other NGOs. Present also were MPs of the CHP and HDP. There was no diplomatic presence from any mission at the proceedings.
The first defendant, journalist Serdar Altan, was one of many who chose to give his defence in Kurdish. An interpreter was provided. Altan’s defence lasted over an hour and a half and was a lecture on press freedom and the oppression of Kurdish media and culture. Altan began by saying of the 700-plus page indictment, which we learned was compiled by the husband of the lead judge, “This is a political indictment. It has been compiled by pulling different things from east and west. You cannot find a charge amongst its pages.” He went on, “The free press is the guarantee of a free populace. We carried out objective reporting, we were not biased.”
Ömer Çelik and Mehmet Ali Ertaş were next to give their defences, Ertaş saying, “It is a shame that if one use’s one’s mother tongue to report the news, one is considered as a terrorist.”
Defendant Mehmet Şahin was the last defendant to speak on the first day. He thanked everyone for attending the hearing and for supporting freedom of expression and a free media and said, “The indictment is merely an attempt to criminalise us. It reflects nothing but normal journalistic activities but has been compiled with no evidence and with secret witnesses who were added to the case six months after it began.”
The case continued on 12 July, 2023 and although it resulted in releases on bail for all 15 imprisoned defendants PEN Norway continutes to assert that the case should be quashed forthwith, all defendants be fully acquitted and a pluralistic media landscape to be allowed to establish itself in Turkey.
PEN Norway’s Turkey Legal Adviser, lawyer Ceren Uysal is reporting on the indictment in this case as part of PEN Norway’s Turkey Indictment project. She said of the indictment, “The section of this 728-page indictment that related to the defendants begins only after page 346. Despite this dismaying attempt at presenting evidence, these Kurdish journalists have been in prison since June 2022. There is no legal basis for the baseless charges being put forward against these imprisoned defendants. This case file and the other operations being undertaken against Kurdish journalists have only one aim and that is to silence the Kurdish media and to place them under serious pressure.”
PEN Norway’s Turkey Adviser said of the case, “These defedants were all political hostages and such a case is a shame upon the judiciary of Turkey. This is a clear case of an attempt to paralyse the Kurdish media in Turkey in the year leading up to an historic election and such silencing of important media voices is a violation of their rights to work as journalists and of their rights to liberty and security. We do not see this treatment being meted out in the same way to non-Kurdish journalists and we are alarmed and weary of this blatant discrimination and illegal attempts to shut down the media representing Kurdish voices in Turkey.”
PEN Norway will continue to closely monitor the activities to suppress Kurdish journalism and will publish their “Kurdish Linguistic Rights in the Courtroom” report in September 2023. A draft version was presented at the European Parliament in May 2023 and demonstrates an alarming predjudice against both Kurdish defendants in court and their wish to use their own language to present their defence.