Hassles mount for journalists in Turkey after failed coup

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News reported last week that Beatriz Yubero, 26, a Spanish freelance reporter and doctoral student in media studies, had been deported from Turkey, allegedly for tweeting statements critical of Turkish president Encep Tayyip Erdogan. Yubero denies posting the statements–which don’t appear on her current social media feeds–and calls the deportation, which she’s hoping to reverse, a mix-up.

Yubero’s case is the first of its kind even amid a broad program of purges sweeping Turkey. She is the first foreign reporter, and the first EU citizen of any kind, known to have been deported since the violent attempt on July 15 to topple Erdogan. The deportation made news in Spain, and drew renewed attention to the ongoing crackdown on Turkish reporters.

The crackdown’s breadth appears to be operating on two levels. On one, nothing specifically ominous is apparent, but the climate of fear the purges create complicates the daily work of reporting enough to make some stories all but impossible. Meanwhile, less common but more serious cases involve censorship, shuttering of media companies, imprisonment of individual reporters, and incidents like Yubero’s still-unexplained deportation. In addition to covering the aftermath of a failed coup, many reporters now have to do so while also avoiding jail, keeping sources and colleagues out of jail, and for correspondents, holding on to their visas.

On July 25, 10 days after the coup, outlets including Reuters, USA Today, France24, the Washington Post and CNN reported that arrest warrants had been issued for 42 Turkish journalists accused of collaborating with the plotters. Most worked for media linked to the anti-Erdogan Gulanist movement.

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Erdogan’s government has shut down or taken over at least 45 newspapers, 16 television stations, and three newswires in the past three weeks, according to a Turkish government decree cited in English by outlets including Al Jazeera. The Committee to Protect Journalists has instigated a weekly “crackdown chronicle” that reads like a police blotter. Just last week, CPJ reports, the pro-Kurdish, all-female Turkish newswire Jinha was forced to remove content by government order three times; prosecutors requested a life sentence for wire reporter Şermin Soydan–on trial for abetting terrorism and improperly obtaining state secrets–and reporters for state owned media learned they would need a new government permit to travel internationally.

But the moves against local media, and deportations like Yubero’s, also appear to be in keeping with restrictive trends that far predate the coup. “What we’ve have seen in the past few weeks is just a continuation of the past years,” says Mahir Zeynalov, an Azerbaijani journalist deported from Turkey two years ago and accused of “inciting hatred” of the government. He was a reporter for Today’s Zaman, a newspaper associated with the opposition Gulan movement, and taken over by the government in March.

After last month’s coup, Zeynalov converted his Twitter feed into a widely-followed rolling list of arrested Turkish reporters. He says that most of the post-coup arrests appear to be an acceleration of an existing effort to shut down Gulan-linked media rather than a separate effort to roll back Turkish press freedom. “The coup gives him [Erdogan] an opportunity,” he says. “Erdogan’s popularity is running at historic highs now.”

Public opposition to the arrests of Turkish reporters has been notably muted since the coup, says Zeynalov, who is Turkish by marriage. “Most see it as a crackdown of Gulanists. Most of them [arrested reporters] were working for the Gulanist-owned media, though that doesn’t mean they were Gulanist themselves.”

But rather than censorship or arrest, the most common challenge to working in Turkey today is  finding anyone to tell you anything on the record, says Zia Weise, a German freelancer who has worked in Turkey for two years and covered the coup’s aftermath for outlets including Foreign Policy and Politico.

“Even people who are entirely supportive of the government are absolutely paranoid of saying anything that can be considered critical of the government, and immediately ask for anonymity,” says Weise. “In terms of access, it’s a problem you just used to have in the Kurdish areas, and now you’re starting to have that in Istanbul and Ankara.”

The drying up of sources in not just a problem for foreign correspondents. As in many countries, stories too sensitive for local reporters to tackle safely are often tipped to better-insulated foreign media, or colleagues living outside the country. That system so far seems alive and well in Turkey, but local assistants are starting to feel the pressure, and Turkish reporters who aid foreign media now risk jail.

“There are certain things that foreign journalists can do,” says Weise. But a post-coup “emergency law” passed hastily on July 21 criminalizes the reporting of “exaggerated news,” and includes mandatory one-year sentences for citizens who aid foreign media deemed to be “exaggerating.”

Though local translators and fixers continue to work with foreign media, many have begun to refuse reporting credits, preferring to work anonymously, says Weise. Others are distancing themselves.* Rampant rumors of foreign backing for the July coup has made it harder to find sources at all, she says. “People are a lot more wary of speaking to foreign media. They say, ‘I won’t speak to you because you’ll twist my words.’”

A former Gulan-linked Turkish journalist, Mustafa Akyol, writing in an August 2 op-ed in Al Monitor, found the politicization of Turkish media true not just on the government side, but also among Erdogan’s opponents. After breaking with Gulan more than a year ago, Akyol was quickly sacked by a pro-Gulan television station, a move he believed to be politically motivated. “The AKP [Erdogan’s political party] people were all still agitated against the secularists, but the Gulenists were even more aggressive. They still liked me, but they didn’t like my criticism. Soon, my appearance on a nationwide TV show on Kanalturk, a Gulenist channel, was terminated,” he wrote.

Though getting caught in the political crossfire is less of a risk for foreigners, correspondents like Weise worry about renewing work visas, which are required annually. “It’s generally accepted that the worst thing that can happen to us is to be deported.”

Until last week that risk was theoretical. Spaniard Yubero, a stringer for conservative Spanish Daily La Razon and Russian news channel RT–and a part-timer, unlike correspondents like Weise and Zeynalov–was residing in Turkey on a student visa to finish her Ph.D. She was not accredited as a journalist, required of foreign correspondents residing long term in the country, under Turkish law.

However, she described the officials who arrested her last Friday morning at her rented apartment in Ankara as “two anti-terrorism police,” not immigration officials.

The officers brought her, she says, to Gazi university stadium, a sports complex now serving as a jail amid a broad roundup of Erdogan opponents. Yubero claims she asked to be read the charges against her, but officers refused and did not explain anything to her for the next 36 hours. “I understand that we are in an emergency state and I cooperated,” she says, “But I was taken to the stadium incommunicado until 7 p.m” with “only the pants I’m wearing, and my mobile, which they took from me.” (The phone was later returned, she says).

During an hours-long interrogation, she says, Yubero was asked if she had ties to the Gulan movement or the Iranian government, threatened with imprisonment in “a migrant detention center near the Syrian border,” and accused of general connections to terrorism, she claims. Late Saturday she was handed over to immigration officials, driven to Ankara’s airport, and put on a flight which landed in Madrid around midnight Saturday.

Though unsettled, the young freelancer seems to have gotten off easy. Months before the coup in April, Dutch-Turkish reporter Ebru Umar was arrested while on vacation on the Turkish coast, also for allegedly anti-government tweets, and her passport held. She was prevented from leaving the country for nearly three weeks and threatened with defamation charges. A second Dutch journalist and a German political satirist also were charged with disparaging Erdogan’s government in the past year–despite the latter working in Germany. In early May, two months before the coup, Turkish investigative reporter Can Dundar, editor of the respected Cumhuriyet, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt while in court to face charges of illegally revealing state secrets, for a story about Turkish arms trades in Syria. He lived but was sentenced to five years and 10 months in jail.

All that was before the coup.

Since the coup, the crackdown on journalists in Turkey is similar in scale to the number of referees and administrators dumped from posts in the country’s profressional soccer league.  “In the grand scheme the journalists are the least of it. The big purges are happening in the judiciary, the police, and other state institutions,” says Weise, the German freelancer. “And the Gulanist journalists are not as innocent as they paint themselves. They cheered on [an earlier round of] firings in state media.”

Turkey’s police and judicial systems, though employing far more people than its media, have been decimated in the weeks since the coup, with 2,745 judges and prosecutors reportedly removed from their posts. Last Tuesday, Turkey’s Justice Minister, Bekir Bozdag, told state news service Anadolu that 16,000 people have been charged in connection with the coup, while another 6,000 were being processed for charges and another 8,000 are under active investigation, according to multiple reports in English, based on Turkish state media.The number of journalists charged appears to be in the low hundreds, according to a summary by Reporters Sans Frontiers, , though includes several of the country’s leading reporters.

Zeylanov, who now lives in Washington, DC, has seen his own profile rise since the coup, thanks to his Twitter list of arrested Turkish journalists. But even he doesn’t think the press crackdown tells the most important part of the story. “If you fire a journalist, if you put pressure on, it’s good for their career,” he says. “Erdogan pressed charges against me for inciting hatred, but I still work.”

“For police officers, they can do nothing,” he says. 

*An earlier version of this story contained an inaccurate quote stating that Turkish journalists had been fired for aiding foreign media.

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Marc Herman is a reporter based in Barcelona. He is the author of The Wizard and the Volcano, The Shores of Tripoli, and Searching for El Dorado, and a co-founder of Deca.