Reporters Without Borders hails the progress that has been made in the investigation into local newspaper owner Cihan Hayirsevener’s 2009 murder in Bandirma, a city southwest of Istanbul, and hopes that the trial of his alleged killers will be completed successfully, despite some foot-dragging and negligence.
A similar determination is needed in the many other cases of attacks and physical violence against journalists in Turkey, most of which go unpunished.
Progress in Hayirsevener murder case
A fifth hearing was held before an Istanbul court yesterday in the trial of all those accused of playing a role in the death of Hayirsevener, Güney Marmara’da Yasam’s founder and editor, who was gunned down in broad daylight in Bandirma on 18 December 2009.
"Despite the Turkish judicial system’s usual slowness, the handling of this case is encouraging," Reporters Without Borders said. "Serious investigations into violence against journalists are extremely rare and must be saluted. A great deal of hope is being pinned on the ability of these judges to render justice to Hayirsevener’s family and colleagues, and to send a signal to the hundreds of journalists who are grappling with powerful local interests or who hesitate to investigation corruption for fear of reprisals."
The link between Hayirsevener’s murder and his work has been clearly demonstrated by the prosecution and by the fact that the judicial investigation into his murder was merged in May 2011 with an investigation into alleged corruption involving the Bandirma city authorities and influential local businessmen.
All the evidence and statements gathered by Reporters Without Borders during its own investigation in Bandirma three weeks after the murder point in the same direction, that Hayirsevener was killed because of his opinionated coverage of a case that was extremely embarrassing for certain local figures.
After a great deal of prevarication, the judges finally attributed the killing to "organized crime," contrary to the claims of the confessed gunman, Serkan Erakkus, that he shot Hayirsevener after an argument. Several witnesses told the court, and Reporters Without Borders, that they saw Erakkus hanging around the offices of Güney Marmara’da Yasam and Marmara TV several days before the murder.
During the penultimate hearing, on 22 May, a protected eyewitness who is not being named formally identified Erakkus as the gunman and gave a detailed description of the attack. He said Hayirsevener was knocked out and then repeatedly shot in the legs at close range.
Another witness, Seçil Kip, who was close to the family of the alleged mastermind, local businessman Ihsan Kuruoglu, retracted her initial statement that she saw the murder weapon before the murder.
A total of 18 people are being tried in connection with the murder and the related financial irregularities but only three are in preventive detention – alleged gunman Erakkus, alleged mastermind Kuruoglu, and Kerem Yilmaz, Kuruoglu’s chauffeur, who is accused of complicity.
At the time of his death, Hayirsevener was investigating suspected corruption in the allocation of real estate contracts in Bandirma. Prosecutors say the municipal authorities awarded several contracts to the Kuruoglu family in exchange for kickbacks.
Hayirsevener wrote around ten articles about the alleged corruption after the authorities arrested 32 people on suspicion of involvement on 28 October 2009, and he told relatives he had evidence that would implicate local politicians.
The case was the subject of a heated editorial war in the local newspapers, two of which are owned by the Kuruoglu family. Hayirsevener and his colleagues were placed under partial police protection after he received threats sent by Ihsan Kuruoglu from his cell and his colleagues noticed that he was being watched and followed.
Although the investigation has advanced, it has not been free of the Turkish judicial system’s usual flaws. Progress is still painfully slow, although more than two and a half years have elapsed since the murder. The merger of the murder and corruption cases was held up by a range of obstructive manoeuvres and by a year-long turf-war between courts in Istanbul and Bandirma.
The testimony from the anonymous witness was announced and then postponed several times as the police failed to do the necessary to transfer him to Istanbul. The fact that hearings are held at the rate of no more than one every three months has contributed to the delays. The court is now waiting to receive an expert report on the defendants’ financial operations.
Local journalists harassed, five victims in two months
Aside from its impact in Bandirma, the Hayirsevener case is important for being emblematic of the pressures to which Turkish journalists are often exposed when trying to investigate the economic and political activities of powerful local figures. Haci Bogatekin’s ordeal is a case in point. The owner of Gerger Firat, a bi-monthly based in the southeastern town of Gerger, Bogatekin was sentenced yet again on 27 June in one of the many cases brought against him, this time to a year in prison. Implementation of the sentence has been suspended by Law 6235, a recent reform law, but Bogatekin told Reporters Without Borders that judicial persecution of this kind encourages journalists to censor themselves.
Local journalists are constantly subject to such judicial harassment and can rarely count on the courts when they are the victims of violence. Most cases of violence go unpunished, reinforcing the feeling of vulnerability that prevails among media personnel.
Süha Alparslan, the publisher of Bolu Gündem, a daily based in the northwestern city of Bolu, told Reporters Without Borders he still feels threatened nearly a month after he and his editor were the target of a knife attack on 3 August by the owners of a nearby business they had just interviewed about the mobile phone relay antenna newly installed on its roof.
Although the business is located just 50 metres from the newspaper, the owners have yet to be questioned by the police and the case has still not been sent to the prosecutor’s office.
In all, a total of five journalists have been attacked in the past two months, the other victims being Semih Bolluk in the western city of Balikesir, Eyüp Deniz in the eastern city of Elazig and Onur Turan outside Istanbul’s Metris prison.
Meanwhile, the investigation into Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink’s 2007 murder is far from complete. The judicial system’s inability to identify all of the instigators and accomplices – who probably included senior members of the state apparatus – is emblematic of the impunity reigning in Turkey.