Seda Taşkın had just been sent to Muş, a tiny eastern Turkish city on a fertile plain surrounded by high mountains, to report on a few stories when police started to track her down. Hot on the case, police apparently availed themselves of a time machine, arresting the Mezopotamya news agency reporter late in December half an hour before a prosecutor had even issued an arrest warrant in concert with an informant’s tipoff. Taşkın’s subsequent trial, however, suggests that rather than breaking new grounds in physics, Turkey’s authorities are probably just breaking the law.
Taşkın appeared in court for the first time on 30 April to face charges of “membership in a terrorist organisation” and “conducting propaganda for a terrorist organisation.” The court date, however, exposed serious irregularities regarding her arrest, the treatment she received in custody and the evidence against her. During the hearing at the 2nd High Criminal Court of Muş, Taşkın’s lawyer highlighted the email address used to tip off authorities to the journalist’s alleged crimes.
According to the official document in the case file seen by Mapping Media Freedom’s Turkey correspondent, the email address denouncing Taşkın as a “militant” bore an “egm” extension, signifying the Turkish abbreviation for “general department of police.” Gulan Çağın Kaleli told the court that a mere 20 minutes were required to locate Taşkın and arrest her – a period that’s even less than the time it took to issue a mandatory arrest warrant. Questioning whether the anti-terror unit had, in fact, fabricated the tipoff, Kaleli requested that the source of the email be identified according to its IP number, but the court ultimately rejected the demand.
“The police tipped her off and the state caught her. This was the mise-en-scène,” said Hakkı Boltan, the co-president of the Free Journalists’ Initiative (ÖGİ), a Diyarbakır-based journalistic group that monitors press freedom violations and aids journalists who face legal proceedings in Kurdish provinces.
Taşkın is a journalist based in the city of Van who mainly covers social and cultural news. At the time of her arrest, she was working on several reports, including a story about the family of Sisê Bingöl. Authorities jailed the 78-year-old woman in June 2016 in Muş’s Varto district on accusations of being a “terrorist” before sentencing her to four years and two months in prison. Boltan told MMF that this type of reporting is often considered as threatening to the state as it reveals police violations. “The public has the right to be informed about this unjust imprisonment. This is what Seda was trying to do when she was targeted by the state.”
Ill treatment from police, threats from the prosecutor
Turkish authorities arrested Taşkın on 20 December 2017 before freeing her four days later. The prosecutor, however, filed an objection against the court’s release order. A month later, on 23 January, officers again arrested Taşkın in Ankara, where the journalist had gone to join her family.
In her defense, Taşkın told the court that police subjected her to a strip search after her initial arrest. “When I refused, they said they would force me,” she said via a judicial video conferencing system from Ankara’s Sincan Women Prison Facility, where she remains in custody pending trial. She was subjected to a second strip search before finally seeing her lawyer. “I was also physically beaten when I refused to get in the armoured vehicle. If I’m telling this, it’s because I want the court to take it into consideration,” she said.
The court didn’t appear greatly concerned.
Taşkın was also threatened after her initial release from custody. “The prosecutor told her ‘How can you be freed? You will see, we will file an objection’ in front of her lawyer as a witness,” Kaleli told the court.
The lawyer also said the evidence against her client was restricted to retweets and Facebook shares – mostly of news articles. There is not even a single article written by Taşkın in the case file, she said. “You may not like the agency where my client works. But this agency is still operating legally, and this is about freedom of expression and press freedom.”
Touring villages with her camera
Included in the indictment as evidence was a “package” that a colleague sought to give Taşkın. There was a certain air of mystery to the private Instagram conversation between Taşkın and her colleague, Diyarbakır-based journalist and photographer Refik Tekin, but the item in question was only a fleece – and police could have ascertained the innocence of the matter had they clicked on the embedded link in the conversation.
Tekin told MMF that the pair had merely discussed the logistics of Taşkın receiving the fleece in Muş. He eventually sent the item of clothing to the prison in Ankara after she was jailed, but Taşkın was still unable to obtain it: The fleece is dark blue – a color that is banned in prison because it matches the uniforms of guards.
Tekin said Taşkın loves photography. She would tour villages around Lake Van in search of news and human stories. “She is a very friendly person. People in villages are usually somewhat shy, but they would immediately open up to Seda,” Tekin said. “She took photos of children in villages, women working in fields… Those were beautiful, very touching. They would tell a story. She would be on the top of the world when her photos appeared in [the now-closed newspaper] Özgürlükçü Demokrasi,” he said.
Her close friend Nimet Ölmez, also a Van-based reporter for Mezopotamya, said Taşkın’s picture of two children returning from school with their dirty clothes and large baskets instead of backpacks helped raise awareness about the precarious situation of children living in the impoverished villages of the region. “They were shared on social media for days. So many people called and asked us how they could help.”
But she admits that Taşkın’s love for photography was perhaps a bit on the excessive side. “She would take so many photos that all our memory sticks would fill up. She once went to a village to report on some shepherd. He had around 200 sheep, but Seda still managed to come back with 230 photos – more than one photo per sheep,” she joked. “I really miss fighting for photos, memory sticks and news with her.”
On 30 April, the court ruled against Taşkın’s release on the grounds that she doesn’t use the name on her ID card, Seher, in daily life, even though everyone, including her close family, calls her Seda.
The next hearing will be held on 2 July in Muş – a town that appears in a popular song with the lyrics “the road to Muş is uphill.” Rather than just Muş, it seems the song’s writers were talking about the road to justice in Turkey today.
Media freedom violations reported to MMF since 24 May 2014