In Turkey, whistleblowing and journalism based on it are being criminalised, as demonstrated by the cases of Reyhanlı and the trucks of MIT, the Turkish intelligence

13/12/2017 -  Emre Tansu Keten Istanbul

(Originally publihesd by Bianet, our media partner for the ECPMF project)

According to liberal-pluralist thought, journalism plays a vital role in democracy. People, who choose their own rulers through elections, need to be informed in order to make a rational choice. The media inform the population about the government's actions, and while they include citizens in the public debate, they also exercise a control function over the government.1

However, nowadays, states are not the only powers that must be controlled. Also big corporations, as shown in the 1999 film The Insider, based on a true story, seek to escape media attention. The film tells the story of Jeffrey Wigard, an employee of a tobacco company, who suffered many repercussions for informing a newspaper that executives manipulated the values ​​of nicotine to create greater dependence on smoking.

Wigard's action is defined by literature as "whistleblowing". The term, first used in 1971 by US activist Ralph Rader, means that a member of an institution informs another institution, the public, or the media of illegal acts, abuse of power, corruption, or injustices that occur inside the institution itself.2

According to Wim Vandekerckhove, from a motivational point of view, whistleblowing could take place without the whistleblower expecting to gain an advantage and solely in the public interest. Likewise, it could also occur without considerations of public interest, but rather to obtain a personal advantage.3

So far, several whistleblowing actions have had a strong influence on politics, both nationally and globally. For example, in 1967, Daniel Ellsberg shared with the New York Times and the Washington Post 7,000 strictly confidential documents about the Vietnam War, playing an important role in the transformation of the population's attitude towards war.

Between 1972 and 1974, FBI vice-president William Mark Felt Sr., known as "Deep Throat", by informing journalists exposed the so-called Watergate scandal, which ended with the resignation of US President Nixon. In 2013, Edward Snowden announced that the NSA (National Security Agency), where he served, had spied and recorded the communications of millions of people.

Whistleblowers and the media

What we can observe from these whistleblowing cases is that the media play a central role in it. Media ensure that the dissemination of specific, confidential documents will attract the attention of the public and, at the same time, influence decision-makers. As seen in Wigard's example, both the dissemination of confidential materials and their publication by a media giant such as CBS were decisive in bringing to light an irregularity that threatened people's health.

Likewise, in the cases that Kwoka calls "deluge leak"4, in which a large number of documents is disseminated, it is always up to journalists to extrapolate meaningful, understandable stories and to protect the people that are mentioned in the documents, but not implicated in the facts.5

In the case of the NSA, Edward Snowden explains that he preferred not to publish the stolen information on his own, because this had to been disseminated to serve the public interest in the best way, putting his own education, ideas, and personal preconceptions to the side. For this reason, he says, he did not want to decide what documents should be shared with the public and what should not.6 "Whistleblowing journalism", based on the collaboration between whistleblowers and professional journalists, has added new questions to the issues of privacy, the priority of the public interest, and the secrecy of sources in journalism ethics.

Legislation is very important for whistleblowing. In countries where whistleblowers are protected by law, more confidential information is published, while in those where legal protection is lacking, preference is given to internal whistleblowing [to the institution or company in question].7

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a ruling on the protection of sources, where it comes to the following conclusion: "In the absence of such protection, the sources of information could refrain from helping people on issues of public interest".8

The most famous ECHR ruling on the protection of sources is that of the Guja trial. In Moldova, two senior politicians sent a letter to the attorney general, who had filed a lawsuit against four police officers, to convince him not to follow up on the case. Guja, an employee of the Attorney's Office, sent the letter to a newspaper and was fired for this reason. He then appealed to the ECHR, and it was established that he had acted correctly, i.e. in the public interest.

The cases of Reyhanlı and the trucks of the Turkish Intelligence (MIT)

On May 11th, 2013, in Reyhanlı (a Turkish province near the border with Syria), the explosion of two car bombs killed 52 people and injured 146. Four months later, the massacre was claimed by ISIS, but Turkish security forces declared that the attack had been carried out on the orders of the Syrian administration by another organisation.9

This article is part of a thematic dossier curated by OBCT mediapartner network: 14 newspapers in 14 countries. The complete dossier is available here

On May 22nd, Redhack, a Turkish left-wing hacker group, released reports from the Gendarmerie Intelligence Bureau on Twitter that indicated that the Reyhanlı attack had been known long before the event. Documents provided details on trucks carrying explosive devices and bomb-building materials, sought after by Syria and presumably intended for pro-al Qaida groups.

Moreover, the confidential documents stated that Al Nusra militants "on April 23rdhad loaded explosive devices on three vehicles", that these bombs would be used in an action against Turkey, and that this "showed a parallelism with the action of the notice".

Two days after the publication of the documents, soldier Utku Kalı, serving in Amasya, was arrested on charges of sending these documents to Redhack. The fact that the documents had appeared in the information system at the time when Kalı was on duty was the only evidence in this regard.

Hüseyin Çelik, then vice president of the AKP (Justice and Development Party), claiming that Kalı "had ties with another terrorist organisation", declared that he had forwarded the documents by photographing them with his cell phone.10

Under trial and facing up to 25 years in prison on charges of "finding documents concerning the security of the State" and "releasing public documents related to the security of the State and political utility", as defined in the section "Offenses against the State" of the Turkish Criminal Code, Utku Kalı was acquitted from the first court that assessed his case.

However, others have been arrested or detained on charges of being part of Redhack, declared in the course of this trial a "terrorist organisation". On the other hand, no investigation has been launched to ascertain whether the Reyhanlı attack had been known before the event and whether public officials had any responsibility about it.

On December 6th, 2016, the Redhack group, that had previously released online the Police Department's complaints and the internal communications of the Institute for Higher Education, circulated the personal emails of Minister of Energy Berat Albayrak, son in law of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The 57,900 emails exposed the minister's numerous commercial, political, and academic ties. The government's attitude was the same – a trial was launched against 6 journalists who had used the emails for their articles, and three of them were arrested.

Tunca Öğreten, one of the imprisoned journalists, wrote in a letter sent from prison: "I will ask the judge if what 7 million people know is a secret. For journalists who are chasing the truth, working in this country has become very dangerous. It is such a dangerous and risky job that it can be compared to being a bomb tech. Being locked up, from this point of view, also means staying away from this danger. I therefore wish for my colleagues on the outside to be able to do their job.11

Another recent, widely discussed episode concerned the dissemination of images of Turkish intelligence (MIT) trucks, supposedly loaded with weapons intended for jihadists in Syria. Photos depicting mortar bombs and various types of ammunition were published in the Cumhuriyet newspaper on May 29th, 2015.

Two days after the publication, president Erdoğan, live on the TRT state network, called Cumhuriyet journalists "spies", adding that the trucks were transporting humanitarian aid to the Turkmens of Bayirbucak. Then, referring to editor Can Dündar, he said that "their only goal is to cast a shadow over the image of Turkey. The person who made this story a scoop will pay dearly, I will not let this be".12

A complaint under the anti-terrorism law was lodged against Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, Cumhuriyet's correspondent from Ankara. The two were arrested on November 27th, 2015 on charges of "finding information on the security of the state", "political and military espionage", "publishing documents that should have remained secret", and "propaganda for a terrorist organisation".

They were released on February 26th, 2016. On November 4th, 2016, another 9 executives of the newspaper were arrested on charges of "helping the terrorist organisation fetullahist (FETÖ) [which, according to the Turkish government, organised the failed coup of July 15th, 2016, note], although not being part of it". CHP MP Enis Berberoğlu was arrested on charges of handing over "documents on MIT trucks" to Can Dündar and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The first appeal court overturned the sentence. And, as in the case of Reyhanlı, there were no investigations [on the allegations of the videos].

The examples of Reyhanlı and the MIT trucks highlight Turkey's attitude towards whistleblowing and whistleblowers. In both cases, documents capable of changing the country's foreign policy were never discussed. In fact, whistleblowing and its use in journalism were criminalised. From the beginning, the media close to the government have treated whistleblowing as a "betrayal of the nation", while the mainstream media, although at first they followed the track of documents, over time have preferred self-censorship. Instead, the opposition media and journalists paid the price for the news they published.

What emerges from these examples is that, for whistleblowing to be useful to the public, not only must whistleblowers be protected by law, but also the media must be free. In a context where both whistleblowers and journalists are arrested on charges of being part of a terrorist organisation, it becomes difficult to disseminate documents of public interest and, as a result, the government manages to avoid control.

Nowadays, when the net amplifies the extent of government surveillance, whistleblowing also has another meaning, i.e. that the objects of surveillance can turn the tables.13

For a functioning democracy, it is necessary to extend both the laws protecting whistleblowers and the media's freedom to transform this information into news.


1 Brian McNair, News and Journalism in UK, Routledge, 2009, p. 22

2 Einar Thorsen, Chindu Sreedharan, and Stuart Allan, “WikiLeaks and Whistle-blowing: The Framing of Bradley Manning”, in Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communications, Journalism and Society, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 102

3Wim Vandekerckhove, Whistleblowing and Organizational Social Responsibility: A Global Assessment, Ashgate, 2006, p. 24

4 Margaret B. Kwoka, “Leaking and Legitimacy”, Law Review , 48 (4), 2015, p. 1413

5 Wikileaks has often been criticised for publishing the documents it acquired without a preliminary editorial process and claiming it needed to provide the public with the information in its pure state. For example, in the approximately 300,000 e-mails published by Wikileaks under the heading "Erdoğan's emails", the identity information of thousands of people was made explicit.

6 Behlül Çalışkan, “Kitlesel Gözetime Karşı Kolektif Bir Üretim Biçimi Olarak Sızıntı Gazeteciliği”, İletişim, N: 25, 2016, p. 139

7 Apaza ve Chang, ibidem., p. 81

8 Dirk Voorhoof, “AİHM’nin 10. Maddesi ile Avrupa Konseyi Standartları Kapsamında Gazetecilerin Haber Toplama ve Bilgiye Erişim Özgürlüğü ve Bilgi Uçuranların Korunması”, in Tehlike Altında Gazetecilik: Tehditler, Mücadele Alanları, Yaklaşımlar, İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları, 2016, p. 145

9 Mehveş Evin, “9 Soruda Reyhanlı Katliamı, Diken,

10 “Çelik'ten Redhack ve Reyhanlı belgesi açıklaması: 1 er gözaltında”, Akşam,

11 Tutuklu gazeteci Tunca Öğreten: 7 milyar insanın bildiği sır mıdır?, Diken,

12 Erdoğan'dan canlı yayında Can Dündar'a tehdit, Cumhuriyet,

13 Christian Fuchs, Sosyal Medya: Eleştirel Bir Giriş, trad. Diyar Saraçoğlu, İlker Kalaycı, NotaBene Yayınları, 2016, p.300

Who are whistleblowers?

Who are whistleblowers? Why can a worker decide to become one? And if they act in the public interest, who protects them? For a comprehensive overview of the ongoing European debate, see our dossier based on the materials available on the Resource Centre on media freedom

This publication has been produced within the project European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, co-funded by the European Commission. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. The project's page

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