Press Freedom

Crackdown against Kurdish media unacceptable, int’l rights organizations say

ELİF AKGÜL

Many international rights organizations focusing on media freedom have voiced concerns over four journalists who were arrested in Turkey’s eastern province of Van following their reporting on two citizens tortured by military officials.

Pro-Kurdish Mesopotima News Agency (MA) reporters Adnan Bilen and Cemil Uğur, Jinnews reporter Şehriban Abi, and freelance journalist Nazan Sala were arrested on October 9, 2020 after reporting on the torture conducted by military officials that resulted in Servet Turgut’s death and Osman Şiban’s heavy injury. Independent MP Ahmet Şık, who went to Van to investigate the torture allegations in late October also stated that the arrested journalists are punished for revealing this story.

These arrests caused reaction not only in Turkey, but also in the international community. Many international organizations that promote media freedom and right to free expression, including International Press Institute (IPI), PEN Norway, Article 19, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Amnesty International demanded MA reporters to be released immediately and condemned the crackdown against the agency and Kurdish journalists across Turkey. 

IPI: “Arbitrary detentions are unacceptable during the pandemic”

IPI Turkey Programme Coordinator Renan Akyavaş reminded the interim decision where the Turkish Constitutional Court (CC) rejected a request for the preventive release of the three journalists who were arrested in Van, claiming that the pandemic does not pose a threat to inmates. Akyavaş continued, “It is worrying to see that the CC claims prison conditions do not pose health risks during the pandemic. While journalists who attempted to report on what was unheard are arrested unlawfully, it is unacceptable that their lives are put under risk amid a pandemic.” 

Stating that charges under Anti-Terror are used in a way to penalize journalists, Akyavaş stated: “The fact that journalists who had reported on the two citizens pushed out of a military helicopter were detained per ‘membership in a terrorist organization’ charges right after these news reports became public clearly shows the ongoing mode of punishment.”

“We see that many journalists who cover various topics from the financial crisis to military operations are being intimidated by countless lawsuits and detentions. This pressure takes a more severe toll on news outlets that focus on Kurdish people’s problems such as Mesopotamia News Agency. MA reporter Dindar Karataş being arrested in Erzurum yesterday (Thu, Nov 26) and Hakan Yalçıng being detained in Ankara today (Fri, Nov 27) for similar charges show this escalating pressure clearly,” added Akyavaş. 

Akyavaş noted that IPI demands detained journalists to be released immediately and that they condemn the crackdown against MA. 

PEN: “State violates rights to personal security and freedom of expression of Kurdish journalists more often”

PEN Norway Turkey Adviser Caroline Stockford reminded the silencing of independent media by the purge carried out by the AKP government in 2018 resulting in the closure of 185 media organisations, 54 of which were newspapers and added: “We are now seeing evidence of the state violating the rights of liberty, security and the right to freedom of expression of a far higher number of Kurdish journalists than Turkish.”

Stating that they have witnessed violent raids on pro-Kurdish Özgür Gündem newspaper and the closure of Dicle News Agency, “Sadly, the recent persecution of the Kurdish journalists in Van is a clear indication of the discriminatory way in which Kurdish journalists are hounded,” Stockford stated. 

Stockford added that PEN Norway calls for a full return to the rule of law, for the observance in full of the provisions of the Turkish Criminal Procedure Code’s Article 170 in regard to indictments and for an end to the targeted persecution of Kurdish journalists in Turkey.

Article 19: “Kurdish journalists are harassed for legitimate work” 

London based human rights organization Article 19’s Europe and Central Asia Director Sarah Clarke called Turkish authorities to uphold their international obligations and uphold the rule of law and freedom of expression in their treatment of all journalists in the country. “For judicial reform to be meaningful in restoring the rule of law in Turkey, the April 2017 amendment relating to the appointment of judges and prosecutors must be repealed. Anything else will be meaningless window dressing,” Clarke added.

Pointing to the recent legal harassment towards MA, Clarke stated: “Kurdish journalists in Turkey have long been harassed and persecuted as a reprisal for their legitimate work in exposing matters of deep public interest, such as exposing the alleged atrocities in Van. The mistreatment of Kurdish journalists in detention, including the torture of Nedim Türfent, is well documented.”

Clarke noted that to end impunity for crimes against journalists, these allegations must be promptly investigated and prosecuted, further adding: “Journalists must be released from detention, in particular as Covid-19 spreads through prisons posing a real and immediate threat to their health.”

CPJ: “Serving jail time without knowing the accusation has become an occupational problem”

“We don’t even know what exactly the four journalists arrested in Van last month are accused of” said Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Turkey representative Özgür Öğret.

Underlining that long detentions without an indictment have become a frequent way to penalize journalists, Öğret continued: “Today, as I am talking to you, we hear reports on new detentions and arrests of journalists from Istanbul, Ankara, and Erzurum. Unfortunately many dissident journalists, especially Kurdish journalists who are Turkish citizens, have developed an occupational problem: getting detained without knowing the reason and serving jail time without knowing the accusation. These arbitrary arrests are unacceptable even under normal circumstances; however, it is obvious that it’s extremely dangerous to insist on such measures amid a global pandemic.” 

Amnesty: “It’s a violation of free expression to arrest journalists without solid evidence”

Amnesty International’s Senior Turkey Campaigner Milena Büyüm emphasized that journalists being detained for their reporting and then arrested by Criminal Peace of Judgeships that they are referred to for allegedly being members to a terrorist organization without any solid evidence is a concrete example of how the ongoing pressure on the right to freedom of expression remains in place. 

Emphasizing that journalists have always had a significant role in revealing cases of torture and maltreatment of citizens, which are forbidden by the international law without any exception, Büyüm added: “Journalists were not considered members of the press on the grounds that they don’t carry official press cards issued by the Turkish Presidency’s Directorate of Communications. Handwritten notes in their notebooks and photos on their mobile phones were not considered as part of their journalistic activity and were used against them in their arrest order. As Amnesty International, we would like to remind the authorities that these journalists must immediately be released if allegations against them are not based on concrete evidence.”

“Authorities must take necessary steps to prevent these practices that include human rights violations, especially at a time when discussions on judicial reform are on the table,” stated Büyüm.