On Thursday the 27th of August, three journalists working with Vice News were arrested while covering the conflict between the PKK’s youth wing, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement, and Turkish security forces in the heavily Kurdish populated city of Diyarbakir. Citing an “anonymous tip-off”, the Turkish security forces arrested Jake Hanrahan, Philip Pendlebury and Mohammed Ismael Rasool on charges of “working with the Islamic State”.
Although two of the journalists, Hanrahan and Pendlebury, were released last week and expelled from Turkey, the charges against them have not been dropped. Equally, Rasool remains in custody for the time being and his appeal has thus far been denied by the Turkish judiciary.
Human rights and journalist organisations roundly condemned the arrests, describing them as “bizarre”, “outrageous” and “a blatant case of punishing legitimate journalism.” Equally, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office criticized the arrest, taking the opportunity to ‘remind’ Turkey of its obligations under the ECHR and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
In early April, Stephen Kaczynski, a British freelance journalist who had previously worked for the BBC, was picked up in Idil Cultural Centre in Istanbul, on charges of materially supporting the banned left-wing terrorist organisation, the DHPK-C, who had staged a hostage situation with a senior Turkish prosecutor earlier in the week. Kaczynski was smeared in the pro-government Turkish press and by prosecutors as an agent of the German BND, or potentially British intelligence, but definitely working alongside the oft-mentioned conspiratorial group Ergenekon. After a protracted legal battle and hunger strike, Kaczynski was finally released last Saturday.
In January, Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink who has worked for the British Independent and Dutch media outlets and is also based in the city of Diryarbakir, was arrested and charged with making propaganda on behalf of the PKK. After a lengthy legal battle, Geerdink was expelled at the same time as the two British Vice journalists.
And on and on it goes.
“One of the world’s biggest anti-press campaigns”
Unfortunately, this is nothing new. As the Committee to Protect Journalists reported in 2012, Turkey is among the world’s most prolific jailer of journalists, almost all justified by overly expansive counter-terrorism laws.
Naturally, while the case of international journalists like those mentioned above are the ones which garner the most attention and condemnation, it is the case that Turkish and especially Kurdish journalists bear the brunt of the Republic’s regressive policies. At the time of the CPJ’s report in 2012, 70% of the 76 journalists imprisoned were of Kurdish origin.
Those who investigate politically sensitive crimes are also at significant risk. Ahmet Sik, who penned a book on the influential and politically linked (former) Erdogan ally, Fethullah Gulen, and Nedim Sener, who accused Turkish police with the assassination of prominent Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in 2009, were both charged with being part of the clandestine Ergkenon organization.
More recently, more than 20 media outlets belonging to Koza Ipek Holdings were raided by Turkish officials. The company and its media outlets are known to speak favourably of Erdogan’s former ally turned enemy, Fethullah Gulen, but more interestingly, had reported on weapons being smuggled into Syria for Islamic State with the knowledge of the local customs director. While it could be coincidence that the offices were raided on the same day that this story went live, it seems a mighty strange coincidence, especially in a state where journalists are routinely wire-tapped and the internet is so closely monitored and controlled.
Turkey’s ruling AKP has held a longstanding antipathy towards the idea of a free press, though it has occasionally restrained its worst inclinations due to the perceived political advantage.
What has changed?
Turkey has always had a complicated history with regards to freedom of speech, press and association, partly due to its history of political instability and military coups, and partly due to its refusal to engage with its Kurdish population in a constructive manner.
Initially, when the AKP came to power, it undertook a series of reforms with aims of eventually joining the EU, which included loosening restrictions on the media and freedom of speech. However, EU accession negotiations have repeatedly stalled, often with the connivance of key member states that do not wish to see Turkey join the Union. In addition to that, there are barriers to joining the EU which involve settling of territorial disputes, which Turkey is not keen to resolve, as with the situation in Cyprus. As such appeasing the EU seems to no longer be any kind of priority for the AKP, public statements not withstanding.
Secondly, the AKP significantly strengthened their internal political position in 2007, with the replacement of Ahmet Necdet Sezer with Abdullah Gul as President, and later on with the passing of laws and the Ergenekon trials which helped reined in the military as an independent actor.
However, the two key turning points which have seen significant downturns for Turkish freedoms are the Gezi Park protests and the more recent Syrian/Kurdish crisis.
The Gezi Park protests, which started as demonstrations against the urbanization of the park but later turned into wider protests against government surveillance, freedom of assembly and free speech laws. The response of the Turkish government was to put pressure on the Turkish media to deny coverage of the protests, as well as to spread significant amounts of disinformation. In addition to this, there was significant police brutality against protesters. After the protest, Erdogan was accused of opting for a “strategy of dividing the country into loyalists and traitors”, with strict laws being passed regarding access to social media and protest groups being treated as criminal organisations.
The more recent crisis in Syria, and re-establishment of hostilities with the PKK, has seen these tendencies taken to new extremes. With Turkey increasingly playing a role in supporting the most vicious elements of the opposition in Syria, most notably ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, it has taken significant steps to prevent knowledge of this becoming widespread.
The more recent crisis with the PKK is far more serious, however. In conflating the HDP pro-Kurdish political party with the PKK, Erdogan is pushing the country close to what some are calling a latent civil war. The rhetoric and violence is escalating, and more worryingly, is taking an overtly political tone. This policy of divisions is reminiscent of the previous rhetoric over Gezi Park, but made that much more intense by the presence of armed parties, not only the armed forces of the PKK and Turkish Army, but acts of vandalism and ethnically motivated street violence.
This intimidation has also been aimed at the press, including notable Turkish media outlets like Hürriyet. After criticizing statements by Erdogan about how the violence would not be occurring if the AKP had enough of a majority to amend the Constitution, the Istanbul offices of the paper were besieged for two days by protesters armed with sticks and stones, led by an AKP official. More recently, Ahmet Hakan, a journalist with Hürriyet, was hospitalised after a vicious beating at the hands of four assailants. No wonder Turkey stands accused of systemic human rights violations.
However, international media outlets are much harder to pressure in such an effective manner. Instead, as recent events have shown, foreign journalists are detained on spurious terrorism charges for months at a time (usually in high security facilities) in order to deter international news agencies from operating in the country in an effective and critical manner. That the charges are rarely ever actually dropped is also a nice touch – it ensures that if said journalists ever return they can again be picked up on the previous charges.
Removing the freedom of the press allows the AKP to continue to use the harsh repressive tactics that are quickly becoming the routine response in Turkey to criticism of the government. It also allows human rights abuses by the security forces in their conflict with the PKK to go unchallenged. As the situation in Turkey grows more unstable, that freedom to report is needed more sorely than ever.