A prominent Turkish journalist who was accused of defaming an al-Qaeda-linked radical group that endorsed Osama bin Laden and called for armed jihad and the beheading of Americans has been sentenced to nearly 300 years in prison.
Hidayet Karaca used to run major TV network Samanyolu, which aired coverage critical of the government of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before Karaca's unlawful imprisonment in December 2014, a move that was described by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as politically motivated. On June 4, 2022, the journalist was sentenced to 297 years, nine months at the end of a trial brought by the government.
According to the ruling, dated November 22, 2022 and issued by the İstanbul 3rd Judgeship of Criminal Enforcement (Istanbul 3.İnfaz Hakimliği), the journalist must serve a total of 318 years, five months in prison when added to his conviction from another bogus case in 2015.
The sentencing sends a chilling message for a press freedom in Turkey, already in shambles, and reinforces the widely held view that negative coverage of jihadist groups aligned with the Erdoğan government is a red line for journalists.
Karaca was kept in jail for one-and-a-half years before the public prosecutor brought charges against him in an indictment filed on July 22, 2016. His trial under case file No.2016/62 was concluded this year with a conviction. The case was launched after the Erdoğan government claimed that Turkish jihadist group Tahşiyeciler, led by Mollah Muhammed (aka Mullah Muhammed el-Kesri; real name Mehmet Doğan), was smeared in a TV series broadcast by Samanyolu TV and that Karaca was responsible for it.
In seized taped recordings that were found during the execution of search warrants, Mollah Muhammed was heard calling for violent jihad: "I'm telling you to take up your guns and kill them," he said. He also asked his followers to build bombs and mortar shells in their homes and urged the decapitation of Americans, claiming that Islam allows such practices. "If the sword is not used, then this is not Islam," he stated.
According to Mollah Muhammed, all Muslims were obligated to respond to then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's armed fight. He reiterated his fondness for bin Laden in a live TV interview after his release.
Although Mollah Muhammed and his associates were indicted and tried, Erdoğan started defending the group in 2014, vouching for the radical imam. The campaign to save the indicted Mollah Muhammed was first launched by the Sabah daily, owned by Erdoğan's family, on March 13, 2014. An article tried to portray him as a victim. The government claimed that Mollah Muhammed was framed by the Gülen movement, a group that is highly critical of Erdoğan on a range of issues from corruption to Turkey's arming of jihadist groups in Syria and Libya.
In the end, Erdoğan helped secure the acquittal of Mollah Muhammed and his associates through his loyalist judges and prosecutors, launched a crackdown on journalists who criticized the radical group and even hired a lawyer to file a civil suit in the US against Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been an outspoken critic of radical and jihadist groups, for defaming this fanatic.
The case was rife with irregularities and procedural flaws arising from immense government pressure that deprived the journalist of the right to a fair trial. The authorities also cracked down on his lawyers. "I am defending myself under very difficult circumstances. Some of my lawyers have left, some of them were arrested. I could not even find a lawyer to write a petition for me," Karaca said during a hearing in August 2016.
The case is just one of many that aim to intimidate journalists and discourage them from writing about al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups and their links to the Erdoğan government.
Karaca is an experienced Turkish broadcaster who served as chairman of the Television Broadcasters Association as well as Television Audience Measurement (TİAK). He had worked in the print media for years, serving as bureau representative for the Zaman daily in İzmir and Ankara before accepting a job with the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group in 1999. When he was taken into custody by police officers who raided the television studio where he was working on Dec. 14, 2014, he was the general manager of the network.
Public prosecutor Hasan Yılmaz, an Erdoğan loyalist who launched a criminal investigation of Karaca in 2014 for defamation of Mollah Muhammed and his jihadist comrades, was rewarded by the government and promoted to deputy chief public prosecutor in Istanbul. In 2020 Erdoğan appointed him to the position of deputy justice minister, where he still serves as of the present day.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.