The presumption of innocence must not be a mere pretense

In my journalism ethics courses, I always mention the presumption of innocence to my students and emphasize the importance of reporting news in accordance with the presumption of innocence, especially in crime reporting. To put it briefly, the presumption of innocence means that a person accused of a crime should be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law.

The Declaration of Rights and Responsibilities of Journalists of Turkey, published by the Association of Journalists of Turkey, addresses this issue under the heading Judiciary: “Journalists should not take sides in the judicial process. A suspect or defendant should not be declared guilty unless a judicial decision is finalized. Statements that could influence or direct the investigation or put the relatives of the accused person or persons in a difficult situation should be avoided.”

“Professor nightmare in action” news is problematic

What prompted me to write this article was the news article titled “Professor nightmare’s execution” published by Timur Soykan in BirGün on September 17, 2023. First of all, let me state that Timur Soykan is a successful journalist. His late 2022 report on child abuse at the Hiranur Foundation was praiseworthy in itself, and in fact, Timur Soykan received the “Best News” award at the 26th Metin Göktepe Journalism Awards for his reporting on this issue. The ÇYDD (Association for Supporting Contemporary Life) gave Timur Soykan an honorary award, the Press Council gave him a press freedom award and the Association of Contemporary Journalists gave him a news award. I teach this news and the developments that followed as an example of “Moral Panic” in my classes.

What happened?

Timur Soykan published an article/news article titled “Professor nightmare in action” in his column in BirGün newspaper on September 17. The opening paragraph of the article was as follows: “A horror movie-like incident in Istanbul… Psychiatrist Zoroğlu diagnosed his child patients with ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’ by injecting them with ketamine. He made the children believe that they were sexually abused by their fathers through suggestion. He was arrested upon the application of the families. Prof. was also on trial for FETÖ.” The rest of the article was full of statements containing the same dose of finalized judgments. On the same day, the article was published on the front page of the newspaper with the headline “Professor led dozens of children to disaster” and the title “Professor Nightmare”. The article/news article claimed that psychiatrist Prof. Dr. Süleyman Salih Zoroğlu, who was dismissed from Istanbul University in 2016 due to FETÖ charges, allegedly administered wrong treatment to pediatric patients in his private clinic and provoked these children against their families.

Although it is stated in the article that the arrest is based on allegations, when the whole article is read, it is seen that it is a one-sided article/news article based only on accusations, ignoring the presumption of innocence, and not allowing the accused party the right to reply.

It was widely reported in the media

As soon as this article/news was published, it quickly spread as news of a health scandal, and other newspapers and TV channels also covered it. We have seen that the same problematic style in BirGün also dominated the rest of the media. It is not known whether the biggest contributor to this is the fact that the accused person was dismissed from the Forensic Medicine Institution due to FETÖ allegations, but we see that some newspapers emphasize this factor.

Let me give some news examples:

– “FETÖ doctor’s hypnosis trick: His testimony revealed” (NTV / September 17)

– “Terrible suggestion from FETÖ psychiatrist: You need to eliminate your father” (Sabah / September 18)

– “Trap for children by FETÖ: Disgusting professor opened a house for children” (Turkey / September 18)

– “The professor’s terrible plan: Experiment to make children murderers and enemies” (Yeni Safak / September 18)

– “Hypnotic trap for the family” (Milat / September 18)

Professor denies charges

After his arrest, Professor Zoroğlu posted on an X account in his name, denying the accusations and claiming that journalist Timur Soykan had written his article with incomplete information.

Of course, in this issue, we do not focus on who is telling/writing the truth, but on what should be taken into consideration when reporting a news story. Since I do not have any expertise in psychiatry, it is not possible for me to say whether what the doctor did was right or wrong. Neither can Timur Soykan or any other journalist. What should be done in such cases is to avoid one-sided reporting and to keep in mind that the accused may be innocent.

As a matter of fact, Şebnem Korur Fincancı, the President of the Turkish Medical Association, said in a TV program on Artı TV, “We need to take a cautious approach. It is a more correct approach to rely on the professional organizations’ assessment of professional responsibility, especially in such areas. If your colleague had consulted us, we could have explained the drawbacks of reporting this news in this way before it was published. Investigative journalism should mean not only looking from one side, but trying to find the truth by investigating all aspects.” Frankly, I don’t think any investigative journalist would object to this last sentence.

The Psychiatric Association of Turkey also published a statement on its website and said the following: “We would like to announce to the public and those concerned that statements that create distrust towards the treatments that people carry out with their physicians, devalue the treatments and create uncertainty about childhood traumas, which is an important problem especially for our country, should be avoided over an issue that has been brought to court, and that an issue that is in the court process should not be generalized. It is of utmost importance that the treatments carried out by our physicians, both with psychotherapy and medication, are continued and that confidence in the treatments is maintained.”

The Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Association of Turkey issued a statement accusing the professor. In the statement, it was stated that the physician used a drug that should not be used in pediatric patients and therefore made “unscientific and unethical” attempts.

“News language can make it difficult to understand the dimensions of the event”

Speaking to Meral Candan from Gazete Duvar, Psychiatrist Prof. Dr. Burhanettin Kaya draws attention to the problematic language of the news coverage of the incident: “The way the incident is first reported and the language of the news based on it begins to shape the way the news spreads and the reactions. With the emotions it elicits, the first news report can trigger a lynch propaganda against a person or a professional field, as well as making it difficult to understand the context, causality and dimensions of the event.”

Best to stick to ethical principles

We do not yet know how this case will turn out, whether the accused physician is guilty or innocent. We will wait and see. However, if we stick to ethical principles in all circumstances and events, we will both inform the public correctly, observe the presumption of innocence and not ignore the best interests of the pediatric patients receiving treatment. The accusations are very serious and should of course be reported, but without getting caught up in the sensationalism of the event.

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