Turkey: international press freedom on hold
After the army, the judges, the police and the Turkish press, the conservative Turkish government keeps on finding new internal enemies. It is now the turn of international journalists to be the target of this government through attacks via the news or social media and even legal action.
On the 6th of January 2015, at noon, a tweet went viral in the community of foreign journalists based in Turkey: “Terrorism police just searched my house, team of 8 guys. They're taking me to the station now. Charge : propaganda for terrorist organization”. It had been hastily written by Frederike Geerdink, a Dutch journalist. Frederike is well known in the foreign journalist’s community, as she is the only journalist permanently living in the south east of the country, in Diyarbakir, the Turkish Kurdish “capital”. Diyarbakir, for the Turkish government, is primarily a city under surveillance as it is the city at the heart of Kurdish conflict since the 1980’s.
At the same time on the same day, officials from the Dutch ministry for foreign affairs were on an official visit in Ankara. At noon, the news went viral and the Dutch ministry started protesting ; this is probably the reason why the journalist was quickly released, after just a few hours.
The next day, the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo shifts the world attention on Paris, and on the 11th of January, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish prime minister, took part in the demonstrations in the name of freedom of expression. In parallel, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, stated that “there is no place in Europe or in the world where the press is more free than in Turkey”. Those are bitter-sweet words for Hidayet Karaca, a Turkish journalist arrested during a police raid in December 2014, one of those high-profile arrests that are becoming common in Turkey. Hidayet Karaca, who is still in jail, published an open letter reminding people that Turkish journalists are the first to come under attack from the present government.
For foreign journalists, the shift in approach dates from events at Gezi’s park in May 2013: “Then a structured movement was organised and those close to the acting government started to point the fingers at foreign journalists," says Erol Onderoğlu, a member of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). "I remember a specific meeting where this issue was discussed”.
Gezi’s events are a milestone for the Islamic conservative AKP party that has been running Turkey since 2002. In 2013, the revelation of corruption affairs linked to Mr Erdoğan and his relatives was a second nail in the coffin. Since then, the first minister has been elected president, in June 2014, and is now on a mission to bring down the Gülen movement that is supposedly a national security threat. Extensive purges have taken place against this “parallel state”. Thousands of policemen, judges and journalists are becoming the target of this state anger.
The arrest of Frederike Geerdink illustrates growing governmental annoyance. The Dutch journalist is not only a witness in a highly sensitive region, she has also started to publish articles in Turkish in an alternative opposition media. Her arrest was not merely meant to intimidate her, it will be followed by a trial in April 2015. The journalist could be sentenced to up to 5 years in jail for having sent tweets that fall under article 7 of the anti-terrorist law. “It’s a total abuse of the law as this article targets direct incitation of violence and this was not the case”, argues RSF.
Frederike Geerdink is not the only foreign journalist that has fallen foul of the authorities while doing her job. In May 2014, following the accident at the Soma coal mine (more than 300 dead), Hasnain Kazim, who was working for the German newspaper Der Spiegel, interviewed a miner who was then a supporter of AKP. This miner expressed his anger as to how M Erdoğan managed the incident : “I would like to tell him: go to hell”. Der Spiegel uses this broadside as its title and Kazim then became the target of menacing messages on twitter and facebook.
The number of incidents is rising. A BBC team was the target of tear gas from the police. On the anniversary of Gezi a CNN journalist was arrested live on TV. “This same day, I was also molested by the police ignoring my press card,” states this journalist based for many years in Istanbul. The government is adamant that the foreign press is manipulating international opinion. The brutalities against foreign journalists are multiplying and so are withdrawals and refusal of residency permits confirming the now open pressure against the foreign press.
To reinforce its message, the government can count on a devoted media. On the 8th of February, the Islamic newspaper, Yeni Akit, published an article entitled 'Are foreign journalists spies?' The article refers to the confession of a journalist supposedly collaborating with the CIA. A few weeks earlier, a former press advisor of Mr Erdoğan published similar information in the daily newspaper Hurriyet. This is one way to sow the seeds of doubt in the public mind, to fuel conspiracy theories from the inside and to give arguments to the most vocal partisans.
The message to foreign journalists is clear : “you are not welcome”. In addition the government is preparing a counter-attack. A public television project in English that was awaiting approval is now being reviewed and is likely to go live. There is no doubt that in the land of “freedom of expression”, the editorial office will be listening to the voice of its master, that is the government of Mr Davutoğlu and the president Erdoğan.
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