Turkish TV Producer Sentenced to Jail

Friday, April 16, 2004

Ankara court punishes false provocations against Protestant Christians.

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, April 16 (Compass) -- The host of a Turkish TV news show was sentenced to nearly two years in jail last week for airing false provocations against Turkish Protestants.

A unanimous panel of three judges ruled that anchorman Kerim Akbas’ programs on Baskent TV had incited violent attacks last year against local Christian citizens and their places of worship in Ankara.

In an April 5 decision by the 2nd Ankara State Security Court, Akbas, 37, was found guilty of “inciting hostility and deep-seated resentment within the populace to the extent of disturbing public order,” in violation of Sections 312, 80 and 59 of the Turkish penal code.

According to Fatih Selim Yurdakul, lawyer for the plaintiffs, Akbas’ sentence cannot be converted to a fine, although he has already exercised his right to appeal the decision. The convicted defendant was ordered to pay 254,100,000 Turkish liras ($195) in court fees.

Video clips from three Friday night “Haber Dosyasi” (News File) shows hosted and produced by Akbas were presented as evidence in the case. First broadcast on March 21, April 11 and June 20 of last year, the sensationalized footage was screened repeatedly by the channel on Friday evenings.

“Priests, pastors and shepherds, beware. We know about your dirty games,” Akbas stated in one program. “You are trying everything possible to undercut the foundations of Turkey.”

During the broadcasts, the anchorman read out the names and addresses of two local Protestant churches, and also targeted The Open Door, a Christian bookshop run by Turkish Protestants in the capital.

Akbas accused these and other local Protestant groups of “opening illegal churches without permission in Ankara,” claiming their underlying purpose was not religious propaganda, but rather “ethnic, radical division to disturb the peace.”

In blanket statements flavored with nationalistic rhetoric, the TV host declared that Protestants were maintaining secret links with foreign intelligence organizations, and even paying Muslim young people to become Christians.

After one video clip panning views of The Open Door bookshop, the camera zoomed in as a Turkish Bible was opened, revealing a $100 bill hidden between the pages.

Ten days after Akbas’ first “expose,” the newly rented Kecioren Mujde Church was attacked by a small mob armed with sticks and stones who broke out windows in the rented premises. The following day, a textile shop run by church leader Erol Dagli suffered a similar fate.

Twice attackers set fire to the church premises, ruining most of the furniture and doors and blackening all the inner walls. The building was later vandalized on several other occasions.

Both Dagli and an expatriate friend were attacked with a long butcher knife by Tuncay Ergon, who now has three criminal indictments filed against him by the public prosecutor for a string of death threats and harassment against Dagli, his family and his church.

Despite Ergon’s ongoing threats against Dagli, local police officers have refused to take seriously the pastor’s request for protection for his family and small congregation. “I’ve registered more than 12 complaints, and they always treat me like the person who is guilty,” he told Compass. “They tell me to just close down my church, and my problems will be over.”

After a steady campaign of threats warning Dagli and other Protestant believers to close down their church, the congregation was forced to cancel its rent contract and begin meeting elsewhere.

Across town, the Balgat Protestant Church received threats that a bomb had been planted near its premises, frightening attendees from coming to worship services.

Although Dagli filed official complaints against the “News File” broadcasts with the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) twice, last April and again in June, he was told the program “had not committed any crime” in its comments.

So together with Bora Guler, manager of The Open Door bookshop, Dagli filed a case before the State Security Courts, charging that Akbas had incited violence in violation of both RTUK and Turkish criminal codes.

The final ruling from the State Security Court came after four hearings, presided over by Judge Yunus Karabiyikoglu. Akbas, who is currently employed by Ankara’s Isik TV station, was ordered to prison for a total of one year, 11 months and 10 days.

“This is a major step of progress for religious minorities in Turkey,” attorney Yurdakul told Compass today. “This may be the first such legal ruling here in favor of non-Muslims,” he said. “It shows that our justice mechanism is starting to treat all our citizens equally.”

Despite Turkey’s secular identity, Muslims who convert to Christianity have been repeatedly slandered with impunity by the Turkish media.

About 75 Protestant churches and house groups exist today in Turkey, which is 99 percent Muslim. But the state’s secularist laws have yet to be revised to permit former Muslims to freely establish legal places of Christian worship.