The Turkish government secretly investigated the family members of journalists critical of the regime including their spouses and children, a document obtained by Nordic Monitor has revealed.
The targeting of family members of critical journalists is part of a deliberate and systematic campaign of intimidation by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, causing Turkey to be named the world’s worst jailer of journalists. According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF), which maintains an updated list of jailed journalists, Turkey had 232 journalists behind bars as of Feb. 15, 2019.
A secret document dated Jan. 24, 2017 reveals that a Turkish prosecutor ordered the police to investigate the parents, spouses and children of 19 critical journalists including top reporters who were jailed by the Erdoğan regime. The order was sent to the police on Dec. 19, 2016 by prosecutor Can Tuncay, who requested information be gathered on the close relatives of journalists by the Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime Department of the Turkish National Police (Kaçakçılık ve Organize Suçlarla Mücadele Daire Başkanlığı, or KOM). The document was signed by Deputy Chief of Police Burhan Akçay of KOM.
Among the targeted journalists were Ekrem Dumanlı, former editor-in-chief of Turkey’s one-time best-selling Zaman newspaper who was forced to live in exile in the United States, and Nazlı Ilıcak, a veteran 75-year-old journalist who has been jailed since Aug. 29, 2016 on trumped up charges and was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole on Feb. 16, 2018 on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. Family members of prominent novelist and journalist Ahmet Hüsrev Altan and his brother, Mehmet Hasan Altan, an economics professor and journalist, were also included on the target list. Both brothers were also given aggravated life sentences.
An annual press freedom report released by the Council of Europe (CoE) in early February 2019 stated that the Zaman Media Group, Cumhuriyet daily, Ahmet Altan and Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak trials illustrate the almost complete collapse of the rule of law in Turkey and highlight major concerns relating to the role of the judiciary and its independence. The report, titled “Democracy at Risk: Threats and Attacks Against Media Freedom in Europe,” underlined that journalists in Turkey continued to face extraordinary repression in 2018.
According to the document, former Zaman art director Fevzi Yazıcı, a member of the US-based international Society for News Design (SND) and the recipient of numerous SND awards, was also targeted in this witch-hunt aimed at the family members of journalists.
Others listed in the document are investigative journalists Mehmet Baransu, Emrullah Uslu, Tuncay Opçin, Today’s Zaman former Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş, Samanyolu TV Washington representative Şemsettin Efe, Zaman daily journalist Abdülkerim Balcı, former Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Zaman Mehmet Kamış, Zaman executive Faruk Kardıç, Zaman brand manager Yakup Şimşek, Zaman Culture and Arts Editor Ali Çolak, Professor Osman Özsoy, academics Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül and Tibet Murad Sanlıman, and media owner and publisher Alaeddin Kaya.
Police Chief Akçay wrote in his response that the investigation must be kept secret and must not be shared with any third parties. In a six-page report annexed to the secret document, the communications of the family members of the journalists were investigated and their phone records were analyzed by the investigators. The report shows Dumanlı’s two daughters, Süveyda and Süheyla Cemre, 22 and 19 years old at the time, respectively, were investigated by the police. Keneş’s wife, Özsoy’s son, Şimşek’s daughter, Kaya’s wife and son, Uslu’s wife, Yazıcı’s wife and Balcı’s wife were also investigated by the prosecutor with regard to their banking details, membership in nongovernmental organizations and shares in private companies. Dozens of pages listing the phone records of the journalists who spoke to family members were also annexed to the secret document as if it constituted criminal evidence.
The document also reveals how criminal prosecutions were directed by the government through the National Police Department (Emniyet) in Ankara, which has no role in judicial investigations under the Turkish penal code. The Emniyet’s role is merely administrative, and it can only coordinate provincial police departments when there is a conflict of interest. In a clear breach of established procedure in this case, the Istanbul prosecutor asked the police department in Ankara to investigate the relatives of the journalists when he was supposed to send the order to the Istanbul police.
The Emniyet’s response also gives clues as to how the investigation was to be pursued in line with the Erdoğan government’s requests. Again, in defiance of the established rules, the police asked the prosecutor to treat the information as secret although the initial order from the prosecutor included no such provision, suggesting that the government feared the fallout if the communications were made public. The way the police report was written sounded more like instruction to the prosecutor on how to proceed, when it is supposed to be the other way around. In other words, the executive branch was calling the shots on how the criminal investigations and prosecutions of journalists and their families should proceed.
The most notorious case of targeting the family members of journalists took place in 2016, when the police came to arrest journalist Bülent Korucu, editor-in-chief of the critical Yarına Bakış national daily, but instead arrested his wife Hacer on July 30, 2016. The case was listed in the 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices by the US State Department. The police message was that she would be held as a hostage until her husband surrendered himself. Hacer, a mother of five who had nothing to do with journalism other than being an avid reader of the daily her husband managed, was formally arrested on Aug. 9, 2016.
Police went to the Korucu home several times afterwards, even going so far as to threaten their children with jail as well. The family could not find a lawyer willing to take up Hacer’s case and file simple motions to exhaust domestic remedies so that she could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for rights violations. Ludicrous charges under anti-terrorism laws included evidence of Hacer’s subscriptions to a newspaper that was critical of the government. No formal indictment was filed against her for months, and she was finally released pending trial subject to a travel ban.
The Erdoğan government has also closed down more than 180 media outlets since 2016 and canceled in excess of 900 press cards.