A Sweden-based Turkish journalist is currently facing a second indictment in Turkey regarding an article which exposed secret profiling by Turkish authorities that unlawfully blacklisted well over 100,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade because they were enrolled in schools owned and operated by a dissident group that has critical views of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In an exclusive and breaking report published by Nordic Monitor on April 1, 2021, journalist Abdullah Bozkurt revealed that Turkey's Ministry of Education compiled a special database identifying at some 138,000 students from K through 12, a secret move that targeted the country's one-time best-performing school network affiliated with the Gülen movement, inspired by Erdogan foe Fethullah Gülen.
The objective of the database was to assist Turkish authorities in identifying critics and opponents of the government within the group. This was achieved by monitoring and tracking the children of these individuals who were enrolled in the mentioned schools.
The identification of children in a special database and sharing their information with the police without an explicit mandate in Turkish law and certainly with no court review raises concerns that these children would likely be stigmatized, denied government jobs in the future on national security pretexts and even face possible criminal probes based on their background in these schools when they transition into adulthood.
A common inquiry during police interrogations pertains to whether the detainees have previously attended Gülen-affiliated schools. The article even highlighted a specific case in the southwestern province of Isparta, where district police chief İsmail Karasakal requested enrollment information from the education board on October 13, 2017. The accompanying document, which was included in the article, contained a list of 16 students who had attended Gülen schools, along with the names and identification details of their parents.
Rattled by the revelation, Karasakal responded by filing a criminal complaint on April 14, 2021 directed at the journalist. In his complaint he asserted that his public reputation had suffered due to the exposé since he had been portrayed as a profiler. Karasakal contended that his actions were merely in line with his official duties, carried out according to instructions. He further urged the public prosecutor to initiate a criminal investigation into Bozkurt and to take punitive measures against those responsible for leaking the documents to the journalist.
Following the submission of the complaint, public prosecutor Serkan Beyoglu took action, resulting in the indictment of Bozkurt on July 4, 2023 on defamation charges. Beyoglu requested that the Isparta No.1 Criminal Court of First Instance oversee the trial, consider the evidence and potentially sentence the journalist to a maximum of two years in prison. The first court hearing, presided over by Judge Semra Guven on July 18, 2023, led to the issuance of an arrest warrant for the journalist. A second hearing was subsequently scheduled for November 7, 2023.
In response to the indictment, Bozkurt conveyed that the independent examination of the actions of public officials by the media is an inherent aspect of journalism, one that serves the public's best interests. He characterized the indictment as a component of an ongoing campaign of intimidation directed at him by Turkish authorities. Bozkurt pointed out that this campaign involved a clear misuse of the criminal justice system, designed to silence him and curtail his journalistic efforts.
"The revelation I've uncovered is both staggering and deeply disturbing – a vast profiling of children orchestrated by the Erdogan administration. This not only contradicts the principles set forth in the Turkish Constitution but also stands in direct violation of numerous international rights agreements that Turkey has ratified," Bozkurt added.
This isn't the first time the Swedish-based journalist has become the focus of an indictment. Bozkurt is currently under another indictment and is being tried in absentia on charges of defamation, initiated by Turkish President Erdogan. This case pertains to an article authored by Bozkurt, which delves into the story of a well-known and convicted jihadist. This individual had a history of hijacking a ferry en route to Russia, participating in conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia, orchestrating an assault on a luxury hotel in Istanbul and establishing an organized crime syndicate.
After a criminal complaint was lodged by Erdogan's personal lawyer, public prosecutor Selman Bacaksız determined that the article constituted an insult of Erdogan. Consequently, on November 3, 2021 an indictment was formally filed against Bozkurt on defamation charges. The case is being heard in absentia by the Istanbul Anadolu 57th Criminal Court of First Instance. The trial recently had its seventh hearing, presided over by Judge Gökhan, resulting in the issuance of an arrest warrant for Bozkurt. The next hearing has been scheduled for October 12, 2023.
The second article was about a Turkish national named Muhammet Emin Tokcan, a jihadist who was jailed several times in the past for criminal activities and is still being tried on multiple charges in high criminal courts in Turkey. The article, published on the Nordic Monitor website on March 11, 2019, featured the profile of Tokcan as a battle-hardened Turkish militant who committed multiple crimes over a period of years and detailed how he was freed from the grasp of the criminal justice system with the help of the Erdogan government, which had an amnesty bill passed in parliament.
Even though Tokcan has a long rap sheet that included time in prison, conviction and ongoing trials on serious charges, a public prosecutor took his complaint seriously enough to launch an investigation into Bozkurt.
Tokcan himself admitted to having had a close connection to Erdogan since the president's younger days. According to statements made by Tokcan in an interview on Turkish TV in January 2016, he has ways to communicate with Erdogan and sends messages to him whenever he wants. His claim turned out to be true when Erdogan's lawyer got involved in the criminal investigation after Tokcan filed a complaint against Bozkurt on October 23, 2019.
He wanted Bozkurt to be punished for what he called activities that targeted the unity and integrity of the state, claimed the journalist had insulted Erdogan and asked Turkish authorities to request an Interpol Red Notice for Bozkurt's arrest and to bring him back to Turkey for trial. Tokcan admitted that he was trained by the military and emphasized the fact that he knew Erdogan from his youth and had always believed in and supported him.
Apart from these two defamation cases, Bozkurt and his investigative journalism platform, Nordic Monitor, have come under scrutiny from the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor's Office due to allegations of terrorism. This terrorism charge has frequently been misused by the Erdogan administration as a means of targeting independent journalists and coercing them into silence simply because the charge carries more severe penalties than the defamation charge. Although an official indictment in connection with this investigation has not been filed as of yet, Bozkurt says it is anticipated to be forthcoming in the near future.
Bozkurt departed from Turkey in 2016 in order to avoid the risk of unjust incarceration, which was a threat during a widespread crackdown on journalists and media entities initiated by the Erdogan government. The government's actions that year led to the imprisonment of more than 200 journalists and the forced closure of almost 200 media outlets. Prior to his departure, Bozkurt was the founder, owner and chief editor of the Muhabir (Reporter) news service, based in the Turkish capital. A day after he left Turkey for Sweden, Turkish authorities conducted a raid on his office.
Bozkurt, who is now the director of the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network, a non-profit organization based in Stockholm, and a Middle East Forum writing fellow, has since been in the crosshairs of the Erdogan government and its proxies because of critical articles and research papers that exposed the Erdogan government's links to jihadist groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In December 2016 Cem Küçük, a government propagandist with close ties to the Turkish interior and justice ministers, called on Turkish intelligence agency MIT to assassinate Bozkurt. Speaking on TGRT TV, a loyalist government media outlet, Küçük said Bozkurt's home address in Stockholm was known by Turkish authorities and demanded the "extermination" of the journalist.
"No need to beat around the bush anymore. Where they [critical journalists] live is known, including their addresses abroad. Let's see what happens if several of them get exterminated. How terrified would they be if you put a bullet into the heads of some [critical] journalists," he said.
Speaking about Bozkurt, Küçük said "his home address is known by the [Turkish] state," prompting the other guest, Fuat Uğur, to say, "They mustn't be able to live comfortably wherever they are." In response Küçük, said: "Right. Kill three or five of them and see what happens. Turkish intelligence agency MIT now has the authority [to carry out killings] abroad."
Küçük was investigated in the past over Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force activities in Turkey, and Bozkurt's writings on the Quds Force's clandestine operations apparently bothered him.
Mesut Hakkı Caşın, the Turkish president's advisor on security and foreign policy, openly threatened Bozkurt with murder on live TV, broadcast by a national television network, saying Turkish intelligence would find him and feed him to the sharks.
Speaking during a debate program on a pro-government media outlet CNN Türk on January 15, 2021, Caşın targeted Bozkurt and said: "Turkish national intelligence will find him, I'll tell you that. I don't know whether MIT will feed him to the fish or the sharks, but traitors always ultimately get their punishment."
Caşın, a 65-year-old professor and former military officer, is a member of Turkey's Presidential Security and Foreign Policy Board advising Erdogan on strategic matters.
Bozkurt was attacked by three unidentified men in September 2020 in front of his home in a Stockholm suburb and had move to a safe location. His address and private information were kept secret under Sweden's laws protecting vulnerable persons. During the attack, he suffered scrapes and bruises to his face, arms and legs and was treated at a local hospital and then released.
On October 10, 2022 MIT leaked secretly taken photos of him to the Daily Sabah, a regime mouthpiece that is owned by Erdogan's family. His previously secret home address was revealed as a continuation of an ongoing strategy aimed at harassing and intimidating the journalist.
Over the past two decades under the rule of the Erdogan government, the state of press freedom in Turkey has deteriorated significantly. The country's press freedom ranking has plummeted to 165th place out of 180 countries, placing it in close proximity to North Korea. This assessment is drawn from the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2023 World Press Freedom Index, which was released in May 2023.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has reported that Turkey stands as one of the leading nations globally for its high number of incarcerated journalists. In 2022 there was a notable surge in the count of imprisoned journalists in the country. The government has been employing recently adopted media legislation as an additional tool for prosecuting journalists.
In Turkey the practice of independent and critical journalism has been linked with accusations of terrorism. The professional endeavors of journalists are frequently employed as incriminating evidence in a substantial majority of convictions. The trials often revolve around evidence extracted from sources such as social media posts, news articles, reports or television broadcasts, which are used to support the allegations against these journalists.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Sweden-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.