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Mesale Tolu awaits verdict

January 16, 2022

A verdict is expected in the trial of a German journalist arrested in Turkey on terrorism-related charges. It comes as journalists critical of the government find it increasingly difficult to carry out their work.

 Mesale Tolu
Mesale Tolu, who was arrested on terrorism-related charges is confident of being acquittedImage: Reuters/K. Aslan

Mesale Tolu, who was arrested in Turkey in 2017 on terrorism-related charges and is facing trial, is confident that justice will be done when the court hands down its verdict on Monday.

"I expect to be acquitted on both counts," she told DW. "But if the outcome was different, I wouldn't be surprised either," the journalist added. In her opinion, the Turkish judiciary is unpredictable. Her chances of acquittal are good because the prosecutor called for that verdict in his plea and experts believe the evidence against her is flimsy.

Detained in Istanbul in 2017

In April 2017, Tolu was arrested by heavily armed anti-terror units in Istanbul. "I was violently detained before the eyes of my son," she can still recall today. Tolu, who was born in the southern German city of Ulm, spent more than seven months behind bars — five months of those with her 2-year-old son. In 2018, she was allowed to leave for Germany. 

Tolu was arrested while working as a translator for a left-wing news agency. She and her co-defendants stand accused of "membership in a far-left terror organization and spreading terrorist propaganda."

Now, five years on, Tolu finally wants closure, saying that she wants to look ahead and fully focus on her work as a journalist with the German newspaper Schwäbische Zeitung.

34 journalists behind bars

Tolu's is not an isolated case. The Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) says there are currently 34 journalists in Turkish jails, most of whom are accused of belonging to a terror organization, insulting the president or spreading terrorist propaganda.

Deniz Yücel, a correspondent for German newspaper Die Welt, and Adil Demirci, who, like Tolu, worked for the Etha news agency, spent months in the Silivri high-security prison near Istanbul, facing similar charges.

Deniz Yücel in Frankfurter Paulskirche
German journalist Deniz Yücel was imprisoned for a year in Turkey on charges of spreading "terrorism propaganda"Image: PEN-Zentrum Deutschland

Erol Önderoglu from Reporters Without Borders has observed a different trend in recent years. Up to three years ago, he thought of Turkey as the biggest jail for journalists in the world. But more recently, he says, the Turkish judiciary has been allowing journalists to go free subject to certain conditions — leaving journalists restrained mentally rather than physically.

He told DW that one should not simply look at the number of journalists behind bars. Önderoglu says other instruments are frequently employed to keep journalists from doing their jobs — including confiscating their passports, requiring regular visits to the police, suspending jail sentences, and refusing to issue press cards and accreditation to attend events.

Worsening situation after Gezi protests 

The situation for journalists in Turkey has dramatically worsened since the Gezi protests in 2013. At the time, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the government's plan to carry out construction on the much-loved Gezi Park in the heart of Istanbul at Taksim Square. Anyone who supported the demonstrations faced the prospect of sanctions, including journalists. Hundreds lost their jobs after the protests. The second big attack on press freedom followed immediately after an attempted coup on July 15, 2016. Since then, hundreds of online news platforms and dozens of newspapers and TV stations have been closed down and numerous journalists detained.

Protesters at Gezi park
In 2013, Gezi Park in Istanbul saw massive protests which snowballed into nationwide anti-government demonstrationsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Okten

According to EngelliWeb, a project run by the Association for Freedom of Expression that records blocked websites, very little has changed. EngelliWeb told DW that more than 476,000 domains, 150,000 reports and 50,000 tweets had been blocked by the authorities. 

Unemployment tops 35%

Unemployment among journalists has also been steadily rising for years. At present, it tops 35%, the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) said at the start of the year.

To mark "Working Journalists Day," held each year in Turkey on January 10, TGS criticized working conditions for journalists. The union said January 10 had to be regarded as a day of struggle as long as journalists do not receive a fair wage, have to work under inhuman conditions, have their reports censored or are forced into self-censorship, and as long as 34 journalists are behind bars and are refused press cards.

Violence on the rise

Violence against journalists is also continuing to rise. Last year, 75 media representatives were attacked, according to the Progressive Journalists Association (CGD). In addition, some 219 journalists appeared before courts in 179 trials and were sentenced to a combined total of 48 years and 11 months in jail.

Journalist Can Dündar, who lives in exile in Berlin, also faces the threat of a prison sentence of 27 years and six months were he to return home to Turkey. He was found guilty of espionage and aiding and abetting terror in Istanbul.

'A kind of revenge attempt' – Can Dundar speaks to DW

Heavy fines are another tool used to silence the media. In 2021 alone, the Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) imposed 74 fines on national broadcasters, which have refused to pay allegiance to the governing AK Party. The state supervisory board forced broadcaster Halk TV to pay steep fines on 24 occasions; Tele 1 22 times, Fox TV 16 times, KRTV eight times and Habertürk four times. The combined total amounted to 22 million Turkish lira, or more than €1.5 million.

People reading newspapers
Activists read the Cumhurriyet newspaper in 2017 to protest the jailing of its journalistsImage: Reuters/M. Sezer

That is an enormous sum for these broadcasters, which have been crippled by never-ending trials and can barely generate advertising revenue. Businesses fear they could be made to pay if they buy advertising from these stations. The proceeds for broadcasting public service and ministerial announcements go, at any rate, into the coffers of media close to the government. At the same time, the owners of those outlets receive major state contracts.

Journalists declared terrorists

Sezgin Tanrikulu, a human rights lawyer and a member of parliament for the biggest opposition party CHP, says attacks on the media and freedom of expression have taken on a new dimension in recent years. He says anyone who fails to kowtow to the Turkish government and tries to report independently is declared a terrorist.

The Turkish government, on the other hand, insists that press freedom is experiencing a heyday under the AK Party. To mark "Working Journalists Day," Fahrettin Altun, head of communications for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wrote that the media had benefitted over the last 20 years from development in various areas ranging from democracy to technology.

Deniz Yücel sentence - Omid Nouripour (German Greens) speaks to DW

It was always Erdogan's aim, according to Tolu, to create a media loyal to the government. Luckily, she says there are still many independent journalists, though not in the mainstream media. These people, she says, are doing all they can to keep reporting on what is happening in the country.  

This article was translated from German.

Elmas Topcu, sitting next to a bookcase full of books
Elmas Topcu Stories on Turkey, German-Turkish relations and political and religious groups linked to Turkey.@topcuelmas