Turkey’s state-run Kurdish TV channel was strictly controlled by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while its employees were vetted by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT), documents obtained by Nordic Monitor have revealed.
According to the testimony of a senior editor at TRT Kurdî who was later jailed on fabricated terrorism charges, Erdoğan’s office closely monitored the editorial line of the Kurdish TV station, had job applicants screened by the spy agency and decided on lists of guests who were to appear on various programs.
Cumali Çaygeç, one of 39 journalists who were jailed by the Erdoğan government in 2016, testified in court that he was offered a contract as news editor on Nov. 3, 2008 to help launch the first-ever state-run Kurdish television station in Turkey. He said he personally met with then-Prime Minister Erdoğan to receive final instructions before they went on the air.
Çaygeç, a graduate of the journalism school at Istanbul University, had 15 years’ experience in the broadcasting industry before he was tapped by TRT executives to run TRT Kurdî. The government tasked 58-year-old diplomat Sinan İlhan, who used to work at the Turkish Foreign Ministry and served primarily in the intelligence division attached to the ministry. He was assigned to the Iraq desk and worked in embassies in Tel Aviv, Jeddah and Abu Dhabi. He quit the ministry when the government named him to set up the Kurdish channel. One of the first persons İlhan called to help him launch the network was Çaygeç, who had years of experience as a reporter on the ground in Iraq and Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish Southeast. He was reporting for the Samanyolu TV network in 2007 when the Turkish military made a cross-border incursion into Iraq’s north to battle a terrorist group.
According to his own testimony, Çaygeç was vigorously investigated by both MIT and the police before he was hired by the network. He said it was because “the state did not want members or sympathizers of the PKK [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been waging a war against Turkey since the early 1980s] to infiltrate the Kurdish channel. For that reason, very rigorous investigations were conducted [into new hires]. At that time, the police even visited my home in Istanbul and talked to my wife and neighbors to obtain information on me. … This kind of investigation was carried out not only for me but for all others who were hired by the network.”
The 45-year-old journalist said the reporting of TRT Kurdî was closely monitored by the intelligence agency, the police and the military and that they intervened even to censor specific words that were used in the programs. He also revealed that lists of people who were to be interviewed by the network or invited as guests on its programs were handed over to him by top management after the names were cleared by Erdoğan’s office. “We could never put on any guest before first clearing him or her with the government” Çaygeç explained.
The goal was to help the government’s new initiative to resolve Turkey’s decades-long Kurdish problem, and Çaygeç interviewed Massoud Barzani, a Kurdish politician who was president of Iraqi Kurdistan until 2017, Erdoğan and then-Turkish President Abdullah Gül for the Kurdish network. He often made trips to the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq and Turkey’s Southeast to cover news stories. He said his boss İlhan came to his home one day with an intelligence document showing that he had been threatened with death by the PKK, which demanded that he leave TRT Kurdî.
Çaygeç was arrested on Dec. 22, 2016 and formally arrested on Dec. 30, 2016 by the Ankara 4th Criminal Court of Peace under decision No. 2016/940 as part an unprecedented government crackdown on journalists who are perceived as critics of the government. He was thrown in a cell designed for eight along with 28 other inmates. He slept on the floor for seven months. The first time he appeared before a judge was on Oct. 24, 2017, some 10 months after the start of his pre-trial detention. He was charged with plotting a coup against the government, despite the fact that the indictment listed no evidence whatsoever supporting his alleged involvement in a failed coup on July 15, 2016, believed to have been a false flag orchestrated by Erdoğan and his intelligence and defense chiefs.
When the coup plotting charges did not stick, the prosecutor charged him with membership in the Gülen movement, a civic group critical of the government that was declared a terrorist organization by Erdoğan after major corruption investigations incriminated the Turkish president, his family members and his business and political associates in December 2013. Erdoğan blamed the corruption probes on Fethullah Gülen, the inspiration of the movement, who denied he had any role in it.
The evidence of terrorism presented against Çaygeç ranged from his phone calls to other journalists, his past employment at the Samanyolu TV network, which was affiliated with the Gülen group, his spending a vacation at the Bank Asya thermal resort hotel where Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held its annual conventions and visiting the Gülen-linked Turgut Özal Hospital, which had an agreement with TRT for discounted rates.
Turkish prosecutor Cemalettin Şimşek requested that the court sentence him and other TRT employees on trial to up to 15 years in prison in October 2018. The panel of judges composed of presiding judge Bahtiyar Çolak, judge Yıldıray Kaya and judge Ergin Yılmaz at the Ankara 22nd High Criminal Court convicted and sentenced him to six years, 10 months and 15 days in prison on Feb. 26, 2019. He was released pending appeal and will return to serve the remainder of his sentence if his conviction is upheld by an appeals court.
Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) show that 212 journalists and media workers were in jail as of Feb. 27, 2019, most in pre-trial detention. Of the journalists in prison, 135 were arrested pending trial and 77 have been convicted and are serving out their sentences. Detention warrants are outstanding for 168 journalists who live in exile or remain at large in Turkey. The Erdoğan government has also shut down close to 200 media outlets in recent years and blocked thousands of websites.