Once a safe haven, Turkey tightens grip on foreign journalists

Cizre is a town of 120,000 in southeastern Turkey near the borders with Syria and Iraq. Earlier this month, the predominantly Kurdish town was isolated from the rest of the world for nine days as Turkish security forces clashed with the militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Residents suffered food, electricity, and water shortages, and some were denied access to urgent medical treatment. Only on Sept. 12, when the curfew was temporarily lifted, did unsettling images from the bullet-pocked town start reaching to the public. Turkish officials claim that 40 PKK fighters were killed, while the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) contends there were 21 civilians among the dead, including children.

It is hard to judge the veracity of those numbers. Members of the press were not allowed to enter the city during the round-the-clock curfew. The town’s virtual news blackout may seem extreme, but the censorship of news outlets in Turkey has reached a whole new level since a two-year-old ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK collapsed in July. Amid the intensifying political crisis, the Turkish government has ramped up its control over the media, including the foreign press.

Two British journalists and one Iraqi working for Vice News were arrested on Aug. 28 on charges of “engaging in terrorist activity” on behalf of the Islamic State. They were in Diyarbakir filming clashes between security forces and the youth wing of the PKK. An international outcry prompted the release of two British journalists, but their colleague, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, remains in prison pending court proceedings.

On Sept. 6, Dutch journalist Fréderike Geerdink, who was based in Diyarbakir, was detained while covering a group of activists acting as human shields in Yüksekova. This was not the first time Geerdink, who has been writing for Dutch media and the UK’s Independent about the Kurdish issue from Turkey’s southeast, had been taken into custody. She was briefly detained in January and acquitted on charges of disseminating “terrorist propaganda” in April. But this was the first time she has been deported. Geerdink says she was the only foreign journalist based in the region, and that she was thrown out to warn other foreign reporters to “watch their steps.” “I’m in Holland against my will,” she tells CJR, and now “there are two eyes fewer on the Kurdish region.”

Several years ago, it was more about financial threats to the publishers, which eventually caused self-censorship in the newsrooms. But now we see more legal investigations as well as physical attacks and death threats to the journalists who do not echo the government’s views. What’s going in Turkey is extremely worrisome.

Long known as a safe haven for foreign freelancers, Turkey has especially become a hub for foreign journalists who wanted to cover the post-Arab Spring Middle East from a relatively stable and secure environment. But when foreign reporters have aired views critical of the Turkish government, as during the Gezi protests in 2013 or the mining disaster in 2014, they have sometimes been subject to smear campaigns and direct intimidation. Turkish authorities’ recent clampdown on the foreign press in southeast Turkey warrants global attention at a time when reliable news about the resurgent Kurdish conflict, the ongoing battle with the Islamic State (IS), and the multi-sided crises in Syria and Iraq is vital.

The violent turmoil in southeastern Turkey began on July 20 when 32 young pro-Kurdish activists, en route to delivering aid to the city Kobane, were killed in Suruç. Police identified the bomber as a young Turkish citizen with links to IS, and Turkey soon began an air strike campaign targeting the Islamist fighters. Two days later, two police officers were killed in their homes in the border town of Ceylanpinar, and the PKK, which had earlier accused Turkish police of collaborating with IS, took responsibility for the attack. In response, the Turkish army raided PKK camps in northern Iraq, thereby ending the frail peace process the PKK and the Turkish government began in 2013, after a 30-year conflict that killed tens of thousands of people.

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The Kurdish conflict has marked every aspect of the Turkish state, including its treatment of journalists. Turkey, which ranks 149th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders news media freedom index, was, until recently, the world’s top jailer of the press, and the majority of imprisoned journalists have been and remain Kurdish reporters and publishers charged with producing propaganda for, aiding, and belonging to terrorist organizations. In late July, as the peace process collapsed, the state-run Turkish Communications Authority blocked nearly 100 Kurdish websites, most of which were news outlets, on grounds that they were spreading terrorist propaganda. “Kurdish stories rarely get any attention from the Turkish press,” says Geerdink, who started covering the region to get those stories out to a larger public. But now, she says, “the only foreign journalist who was writing from [a] Kurdish perspective” has been expelled.

Alexander Christie-Miller, a freelance journalist who writes for The Times of London, Newsweek Europe, and the Christian Science Monitor among others, has been based in Istanbul since 2010, and observes that there is less tolerance nowadays “for outspoken or critical journalism, especially in relation to the Kurdish issue.” Given the Turkish government’s press freedom record in the past few years, he is not surprised that the foreign press has also come under pressure. “The renewed PKK insurgency serves as a pretext or justification for authoritarian measures of all kinds,” he says.

We could crush you like a fly if we want. We have been merciful until today and you are still alive.

As the domestic strife escalates ahead of early elections in November, the mainstream Turkish media’s coverage of the Kurdish conflict has also become a target of government censorship. On Sept. 15, Turkish prosecutors launched an investigation into one of the biggest media groups in the country, Doğan, which owns the major daily Hürriyet, after the paper published photos of dead soldiers and an interview with an alleged PKK militant. Two days later journalist Hasan Cemal who writes for the news website T24 was probed over his article titled “The Sultan in the Palace is culpable for the bloodshed.” The weekly news magazine Nokta was also raided by police, and has been charged with “insulting the Turkish president” and “making terrorist propaganda” after publishing a photoshopped image of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking a selfie near the coffin of a slain soldier.

According to Irem Köker, a former reporter at Hürriyet and now a student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, the recent attacks are the bluntest manifestations yet of the government’s evolving efforts to silence media voices that contradict official narratives. “Several years ago, it was more about financial threats to the publishers, which eventually caused self-censorship in the newsrooms,” Köker says. “But now we see more legal investigations as well as physical attacks and death threats to the journalists who do not echo the government’s views. What’s going in Turkey is extremely worrisome.”

Some critics contend the increasing polarization in the country is part of President Erdogan’s strategy to stoke fear of instability ahead of upcoming elections. Erdogan’s ruling party lost its governing majority in June, after the pro-Kurdish HDP secured 13% of votes and entered parliament for the first time. The president and the party are now trying to regain control. “I believe that November 1 will be an election of stability or instability,” Erdogan said in a speech last month.

As the mainstream media yields to government pressure by self-censoring content or unquestioningly accepting official claims, many are turning to social media to share unreported stories—a civic impulse seen in other places where independent reporting is circumvented by authorities. But the polarized narratives that often circulate on social media, including misinformation, speculation, slander, and hate speech, can further destabilize while failing to inform, as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci observes.

Earlier this month, after President Erdogan denounced Hürriyet for misrepresenting his words in a Twitter post, an angry mob of pro-government activists smashed the doors of the newspaper building and attempted to break into the paper’s offices. That was the second time in 48 hours that the newspaper was attacked by violent mobs. Speaking live on TV, the editor-in-chief of Hürriyet, Sedat Ergin, said, “If they had entered the building, I don’t know if I could be here now.” The next day columnist Cem Küçük, who writes for the pro-government daily Star, accused Hürriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan of backing the PKK, and he wrote, “We could crush you like a fly if we want. We have been merciful until today and you are still alive.”

The current attacks on the Turkish and Kurdish media, along with the arrests of foreign reporters, send a chilling message to the rest of the resident foreign journalists in Turkey. The growing accusations against foreign journalists of being spies or even terrorists not only compromise their reporting, but also may incite violence against them. Both Geerdink and Christie-Miller rightly worry that reporting from Turkey’s southeast may be left to those who parachute in temporarily, and are less informed about the region.

“For the first time since I moved to Turkey five years ago I feel under real pressure to self-censor,” Christie-Miller tells CJR. “I would now think very carefully before going to report from any of the communities in the southeast that are affected by PKK fighting out of fear of being kicked out the country, especially if they are restricted zones. I have a life here, and do not want to be forced to leave Turkey.”

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Burcu Baykurt is a doctoral student in Communications and a Tow fellow at Columbia Journalism School. Find her on Twitter @BuBaykurt.