Turkey Free Expression Trial Monitoring
"Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law is regularly instrumentalized against journalists and free speech. Journalists are predominantly charged with terror-related crimes in order to create the false argument that journalists are jailed for terror activities rather than their journalism."
Since June 2018 the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) have collaborated on an extensive trial monitoring programme across Turkey to analyse the standards of trial procedures and prosecutions on cases involving freedom of expression in general and journalists in particular.
A pilot programme was conducted from June to December 2018 supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and a first report published in January 20191 covering 90 court hearings involving 71 separate trials. Since March 2019 the programme has monitored a further 319 hearings of 169 separate trials and issued five separate reports covering the following periods March-May, June-July, September-October, November-December and January-February (2020). This phase of the programme was supported by the European Commission’s Civil Society Support Programme II and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
The programme was set up in response to grave concern over the manner in which the Turkish judicial system handles freedom of expression cases, especially those involving journalists. As part of the country’s ongoing crackdown on the media, following the failed coup of July 2016, hundreds of journalists have been detained, prosecuted and convicted, in most cases, on terrorism-related charges. During this period Turkey’s courts have systematically ignored domestic and international standards of freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial. Journalistic work is presented as primary evidence against defendants. Dozens of journalists have been subjected to lengthy pre-trial detention and numerous breaches of fair trial rules particularly related to the right to a lawful judge and courtroom conditions have emerged.
The data collected reinforce the argument that Turkish courts are failing to provide an effective domestic remedy for rights violations, the exhaustion of which is a precondition for application to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Journalists and others targeted for exercising freedom of expression are therefore being denied effective protection of their rights.
This report pulls together the results of the monitoring conducted between February 26, 2019 and March 6, 2020.
The monitors attended 319 hearings covering 169 cases (involving 219 separate charges) between February 26, 2019 and March 6, 2020. The hearings included defendants of different professions, with a focus on journalists but also including academics, writers, lawyers, and others.
In 98 of the 169 cases (around 60 percent) defendants were charged with terrorism-related offenses.
A total of 89 journalists were convicted during this period. 69 of these, or 78 percent, were for terrorist-related crimes.
Over the course of this period, 19 court monitors across Turkey monitored hearings in 15 cities. The break down of hearings monitored per city is as follows: Ankara (44), Balıkesir (3), Batman (2), Bitlis (1), Denizli (3), Diyarbakır (34), Erzurum (1), Hatay (1), İstanbul (206), İzmir (8), Mersin (1), Muş (1), Şırnak (1), Tunceli (1), Van (12).
Key results of trial monitoring
- The majority of defendants on trial in relation to their freedom of expression were charged with terrorism-related crimes.
- In 60 percent (98 out of 169) of cases monitored, defendants were charged with terror-related crimes.
- 89 journalists were convicted during this period. 78 percent (69 out of 89) of convictions of these convictions were for terrorist-related crimes.
- Prosecutors use journalistic work as evidence of terrorism. In 76 percent of terrorism-related cases, the prosecution relies primarily on journalistic work as evidence.
- Terrorism charges are primarily for conducting propaganda for a terrorist organization and membership of a terror organization. Other charges include committing a crime on behalf of a terror organization and establishing a terror organisation.
There has been a general improvement in the conditions in which trials are taking place with several of the problems identified in the early stages of the trial monitoring showing a marked improvement over the year. These include:
- The numbers of defendants held in pre-trial detention has gradually fallen.
- Courtroom conditions have generally improved with monitors reporting adverse conditions in over 50 percent of hearings at the beginning of the year dropping to under 20 percent of hearings by the end.
- The treatment of defendants by the judges has also improved. Where monitors reported incidents of aggressive or insulting behaviour implying presumption of guilt in over 25 percent of cases at the beginning of the year, by the end this figure had fallen to 6 percent.
- The use of the video conferencing system SEGBIS for defendants to testify from prison when they had been refused permission to attend their trials, has also dropped significantly. In the first report covering the last six months of 2018, 15 of the 44 hearings monitored (34 percent) used SEGBIS. The monitors recorded 15 hearings over the whole of the last twelve months.
The right to a lawful judge remains a strong concern with 27 percent of cases having seen a change of at least one member of the judicial panel. In 22 percent of the cases it was the presiding judge who changed.