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Blog: Bewildering Odatv trial continues in Istanbul

20 Sep

Journalists and activists call for press freedom in Ankara on March 19, 2011, after the arrest of 10 journalists as part of investigations into the alleged Ergenekon plot. (Reuters/Umit Bektas)

In Istanbul, the trial of several suspects in the case of Odatv, an ultranationalist website harshly critical of the government, continues to great consternation. When the case began in early 2011, a dozen journalists were charged, 10 of whom were incarcerated. The prosecution said Odatv staffers, along with prominent investigative reporters Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, were involved in the alleged Ergenekon plot–a supposed large-scale conspiracy to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Police raided the Odatv office and confiscated books, notes, archive tapes, and equipment. The officers also copied hard drives, according to CPJ research. The contents of these hard drives would later become the prime evidence against the journalists, as would columns and news reports carried by the website–some articles simply reprinted from other media outlets. The charges against the journalists include “aiding an armed terrorist organization,” “inciting hatred and hostility,” and “obtaining confidential state security documents.” But even though authorities claimed they had serious evidence to prove those accusations, such evidence has so far not been presented in court. All of the defendants deny the charges against them.

The evidence included in the indictment, which was obtained and reviewed by CPJ, consists of journalistic articles; wiretapped conversations between staffers discussing press coverage; email correspondence between Odatv journalists and news sources; and questionable Word files that both the defendants and expert analysts say had been planted in Odatv computers using a Trojan virus.

In the months since the initial arrests, defendants have been released one or two at a time, to be tried on bail. Of the initial 10 journalists in custody, two remain in prison for a 21st month in a row. None have been fully acquitted and could be re-arrested upon conviction. We believe that the charges against them should be dropped and all should be released unconditionally.

As the trial proceeded from November 22–and some defendants, but not others, were released–journalists, including those freed, began scratching their heads as to what altered the court’s attitude. Why were they being released now–as opposed to months earlier–when none of the alleged evidence against them had changed?

Müyesser Yıldız, one of the journalists conditionally released in June, told CNN Turk that she was puzzled as to why she had been kept in prison for over a year, then let go suddenly with no additional evidence presented either in her favor or against her. “Nothing has changed in our case dossiers since March [2011],” she said.

The latest conditional release in the Odatv case took place on Friday. But the court still holds Odatv publisher Soner Yalçın–who has been vocal about the injustice he and his staffers have suffered–and writer Yalçın Küçük.

“They are kept inside for revenge,” prominent journalist Ahmet Şık, who was conditionally released in March, told CPJ. “There is no logic [in the court’s actions], this is a political trial. I do not know why I am outside… I do not think the court would release anybody without receiving orders,” he said. Şık alleges that such orders come from a group in Turkey’s police and judiciary affiliated with the charismatic and influential cleric Fethullah Gülen. Şık’s own inclusion as a suspect in the Odatv case stems from his unpublished book, The Imam’s Army, a draft of which was reportedly found on Odatv‘s computers. The book is highly critical of the Gülen community, which, according to the journalist, had infiltrated powerful structures in Turkey. Odatv has likewise been critical of the Gülen community.

In a separate case, Şık is being criminally tried for remarks he made upon his March 12 release from Istanbul’s Silivri prison. He is charged with “threatening and identifying judges and prosecutors as targets for terror organizations”–charges that carry up to seven years in jail if convicted. His trial started on September 13. The charges stem from this statement he made to journalists: “Incomplete justice is not going to bring justice and democracy. About 100 journalists are still in prison. … The police officers, prosecutors, and judges who plotted and carried out this complot will go to prison. Justice will come when they enter this prison,” according to news reports.

This new criminal case against Şık demonstrates the fundamental flaw of Turkey’s legal system–it enables authorities to broadly interpret criticism as criminal activity. Despite some cosmetic changes to individual laws that the government has made in recent months, fundamental legal reform is lacking. Until it is in place, journalists who criticize authorities will be vulnerable to politically motivated prosecution. Self-censorship will become more prevalent than it is today as journalists would rather be safe than risk incurring the wrath of those equipped with the tools to put them behind bars.

While Odatv‘s editorial style of being openly anti-government, provocative, even sensationalist may not qualify as quality journalism, it does not amount to terrorism or justify staffers’ incarceration. If Erdoğan is genuine in his stated commitment to freedom of the press and freedom of expression, he will publicly condemn the imprisonment of journalists and ensure that writing or speaking critically of authorities does not constitute a ticket to jail in Turkey.

from Committee to Protect Journalists


Three Somali journalists killed in suicide bomb attack

20 Sep

From left: Abdirahman Yasin Ali, Liban Ali Nur, Abdisatar Daher Sabriye. (SOMJA)

Nairobi, September 20, 2012–Three Somali journalists were killed and at least four were injured in a suicide bomb attack in a Mogadishu café today, according to news reports and local journalists. The attack took place across the street from the National Theater, where a bomb blast in April wounded at least 10 journalists, news reports said.

Two unidentified men entered “The Village” café at around 5:30 p.m. and detonated bombs, killing a total of 14 people and injuring 20, according to news reports and local journalists. Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for the militant insurgent group Al-Shabaab, said the bombing was carried out by supporters of the group, according to Agence France-Presse. “We did not directly order the attacks, but there are lots of angry people in Somalia who support our fight,” AFP reported Rage as saying.

The café was frequented by the press and civil servants, leading local journalists to speculate they were the targets of the attack. “If anyone wanted to kill journalists en masse, that was the place and the time,” said one journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

The blasts killed Abdirahman Yasin Ali, director of Radio Hamar (“Voice of Democracy”); Abdisatar Daher Sabriye, head of news for Radio Mogadishu; and Liban Ali Nur, head of news for Somali National TV, according to news reports and local journalists.

Somalia National TV reporter Mohamed Hussein, along with three reporters for Radio Kulmiye–Abdullahi Suldan, Abdirisaq Mohamed, and Nour Mohamed Ali–were wounded. The injured journalists have sought treatment at local hospitals. CPJ is monitoring their conditions.

“We offer our deep condolences to the families and colleagues of Abdirahman Yasin Ali, Abdisatar Daher Sabriye, and Liban Ali Nur at this terrible time,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “The senseless slaughter of journalists is continuing in Mogadishu, one of the world’s most dangerous places for the press. We call on the new Somali government to do its utmost to stop these attacks.”

Several people were killed in the attack on the National Theater in April, including two of the nation’s top sports officials, news reports said. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack, the reports said.

Somalia is the most dangerous country in Africa to practice journalism, according to CPJ research. The threat of violence has driven more journalists into exile from Somalia than from any other country in the past year, CPJ research shows.

  • For more data and analysis on Somalia, visit CPJ’s Somalia page here.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

Threatened Ecuadoran journalist leaves news program

20 Sep

A screenshot of a YouTube video in which Janet Hinostroza describes a threatening phone call she received. (YouTube)

New York, September 20, 2012–Ecuadoran authorities must immediately investigate threats against Janet Hinostroza, a journalist with the private network Teleamazonas, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The threats have forced Hinostroza to take a temporary leave of absence.

Hinostroza received a phone call last week from an unidentified person who threatened her safety, the journalist said on her show, “La Mañana 24 horas,” on Wednesday, according to news reports. She said the threats had prompted her to cancel the last segment of a three-part investigation, news reports said.

In the first two segments aired last week, Hinostroza reported on a scandal involving a US$800,000 loan made by Cofiec, a state-owned bank, to Gastón Duzac, an Argentine businessman, that Duzac had failed to pay back, news reports said. Hinostroza alleged on her show that Duzac had connections with Pedro Delgado, president of the board of directors of Ecuador’s central bank and a cousin of President Rafael Correa.

On his weekly television show, Correa acknowledged “irregularities” in the way the loan was approved, but denied any impropriety on the part of Delgado, according to news reports. Hinostroza has defended her reporting on the Duzac case. News accounts have reported that Duzac has left Ecuador and has not made a statement about the case.

Hinostroza said she chose not to appear on the show on Friday “because I don’t know what kind of people we are dealing with,” she said on “La Mañana 24 horas” on Wednesday. She also declined the government’s offer of protection, saying, “Is it fair that a journalist has to be surrounded by bodyguards to do her honest, professional, responsible work? When did that happen? I don’t accept it,” she said.

“It is deplorable that Janet Hinostroza has been forced to temporarily halt her work as a journalist because of threats made against her,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Authorities must fully investigate this threat and ensure that Hinostroza can resume her important coverage of government affairs without having to fear for her safety.”

Hinostroza and Teleamazonas, which is known for its criticism of the president’s policies, have clashed with the administration before. After Hinostroza reported in April 2011 that a woman had been charged with disrespecting the president, the government ordered Teleamazonas to pre-empt 10 minutes of her program with a rebuttal from a government spokesman who called her ethics into question, according to news reports. During an address on state radio that week, Correa mocked Hinostroza’s intellect and said she should be ignored.

Teleamazonas is a favorite target of the administration. In 2009, the network was ordered off the air for three days after it covered the effects of natural gas exploration on the local fishing industry, according to news reports.

Pedro Delgado has also taken on the critical press before. In December, the director of the Quito-based daily Hoy was convicted on criminal libel for articles in the paper that alleged Delgado wielded behind-the-scenes influence in the government.

A 2011 CPJ special report found that Rafael Correa’s administration has led Ecuador into a new era of widespread repression by pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting restrictive legal measures, smearing critics, and filing debilitating defamation lawsuits.

  • For more analysis and data on Ecuador, see CPJ’s Ecuador page here.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

Blog: South African Secrecy Bill kept at bay, for now

20 Sep

A protest against the Protection of Information Bill outside parliament in Cape Town, November 22, 2011. (Reuters/Mike Hutchings)

South African journalists and civil society groups were uneasy this month amid rumors that the Protection of State Information Bill, commonly known as the Secrecy Bill, would pass the Upper House of parliament, the last step before a presidential signature. Since 2008, journalists and civil society have lobbied against the bill, which many fear would spell the end of investigative journalism. A number of these fears have been alleviated by nearly 200 amendments to the draft since its inception, according to the communications director of the ruling African National Congress’s (ANC) parliamentary caucus, Moloto Mothapo.

Crucial concerns, however, remain. As the bill currently stands, the security minister could classify documents without any obligation to record the reasons for doing so. And ultimately the minister would control the classification review panel that would determine applications to declassify documents. “Our main concern is: who can classify, what you can classify and how you can appeal it,” Alison Tilley, director of the Open Democracy Advice Centre, told me during a mission of press freedom groups to Cape Town last week. “We are not opposed to the law’s function to classify documents but the burden of proof should be on the authorities to prove why they are doing it.” (A press release from the groups who participated in the mission can be read here).

Fears of classification for reasons other than national security are not unfounded. Last year alone, roughly 350 documents were curiously classified by the Department of Higher Education, Murray Hunter, national coordinator of the free expression organization Right 2 Know, told me.

While the security minister would have an easy road to classifying information, journalists would have to navigate a confusing road map to access such documents. “There is no direct means to appeal the classification of documents,” Tilley said. Further, any citizen who possesses, shares, or disseminates information the government deems classified could face lengthy prison sentences. As the bill stands, the state could prosecute anyone who downloaded secret South African cables from, say, Wikileaks, and impose a potential 25-year prison sentence. Worse, the ANC backtracked recently and re-instated to the bill minimum prison sentences of 15 years for such offenses. “The maximum sentences are far, far too severe and we want these minimum standards removed,” opposition party Democratic Alliance MP Alfred Lees, a member of the committee reviewing the bill, told us. 

Those who possess or disclose classified documents for purposes of exposing corruption “or other unlawful act or omission,” would be exempt from prosecution, according to the ANC’s chief whip, Nosipho Ntwanambi. But the key concession journalists are seeking–a clause that would exempt leaks in the name of safeguarding the public interest–was rejected because “you do not see it applied in other countries across the world,” said ANC MP and Justice Chair Llewllyn Landers. (While it’s true that public interest clauses are not widespread, observers in South Africa told me, other countries generally don’t have such broad classification powers nor such harsh punishments for possessing and disseminating classified documents.)

Still, the ANC has made some concessions, such as modifying the original draft of the bill to minimize the number of offices in the security department allowed to classify information.

All sides of the debate agree that a new law is needed to classify state secrets and replace the apartheid-era 1996 Minimum Information Security Standards (MISS). Landers explained to the press freedom mission how a government delegation had visited East Germany and saw that declassifying information was a terrible experience for some who lived under the Stasi regime. “Finding that their own brothers and sisters had sometimes turned against them–it could cause so many family problems. We too have an ugly past, and have a large body of information [that] we could not simply say: here it is.”

Opposition parties in the Upper House as well as some individuals within the ANC are determined to battle on until the bill is amended further. “There has been a group within the ANC who are really concerned over the bill and have made considerable efforts to ameliorate this legislation, but we are seeing pushback from the Department of State Security,” Tilley said.

Some local observers suspect the ANC’s effort to pass the bill may be due to the politicization of the intelligence services and their efforts to stop leakages of information. “We have seen in the last four years a systematic creeping of encroachment of politicization of institutions,” Democratic Alliance MP Lees said. Preventing an over-reaching ANC party is one reason why opposition Inkatha Freedom Party MP Prince M. Zulu is also opposed to the secrecy bill, he said.

With so many critical voices in parliament, our fears of the bill passing this month seem unfounded. Mothapo agrees. “The Protection of State Information Bill is changing all the time. There’s little chance it will pass this month at least,” he said.

[Reporting from Cape Town, South Africa]

from Committee to Protect Journalists

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