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[OPINION] Turkey targets foreign journalists systematically and deliberately

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Abdullah Bozkurt

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu, a politician whose career as top diplomat depends on the pleasure of his boss President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has become a leading attack dog on freedom of expression and the press in Turkey and abroad. Not only does he try to portray jailed Turkish journalists as “terrorists” and “coup plotters,” he also paints a target on the backs of foreign reporters by tagging them as “spies” and “foreign agents” with no evidence to back up such absurd allegations.

The most provocative remark he made with regard to foreign journalists was during a joint press briefing with visiting German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on June 5. 2016 during which he claimed European intelligence services had recently launched the practice of dispatching spies under the cover of journalistic work. “A new trend has recently started in Europe. Secret services in particular have started to use journalists as agents in Turkey. Why? So they can argue that ‘Journalists are arrested’ and ‘Journalists are jailed’ when they are detained,” he said.

He was effectively calling journalist Deniz Yücel, a German national of Turkish descent who has been jailed since February, a foreign agent to the face of Gabriel in front of the cameras. Similar claims were also made by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, who controls the police force that investigates criminal cases under partisan prosecutors controlled by Erdogan. This false narrative was played time and again to feed foreign conspiracies as part of President Erdogan’s tactics of scapegoating others for government failures. As a result, Turkish and foreign journalists have become the usual suspects and boogeymen who need to be vilified and demonized.

Since the critical, independent and opposition media in Turkey has been decimated under Erdogan’s iron grip, which keeps 281 journalists behind bars and forces 135 more to live in exile, the Turkish government is now trying hard to crack down on foreign journalists in order to influence editorial lines and dissuade them from writing critically of Turkey. The harshest punishment comes in the form of abuse of pre-trial detention, when partisan prosecutors charge foreign journalists on pretexts of anti-terrorism, espionage and defamation without presenting any evidence of nefarious activity. The numerous cases of foreign journalists since 2015 show that this has been a systematic and deliberate policy of the Turkish government.

British reporters Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury were detained in August 2015 and released on Sept. 3. Lindsey Snell, an American freelance journalist, was detained by Turkish security forces in August 2016 as she crossed into Turkey from Syria. She was accused of having illegally entered a restricted military zone and later released in October after two months’ detention. French journalist Olivier Bertrand was detained in the southeastern province of Gaziantep in November 2016 and deported three days later. Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum had been detained for several days without access to a lawyer in the last days of 2016, and he had to leave Turkey for reasons of safety after his release.

French journalist Loup Bureau, who was detained in July 2017, had spent 52 days in a Turkish jail before he was released in September. Gabriele del Grande, an Italian journalist working for the ANSA news agency, was arrested in April 2017 in Hatay, where he was interviewing Syrian refugees for a book about the war and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He was released after two weeks of detention. More names could be added to this long list of foreign journalists who were forced to enjoy the “hospitality” of detention centers and prisons courtesy of the Erdogan regime.

Other sanctions include denial of foreign journalists entry to the country at the border even after they had worked in Turkey for years, and the revocation of their permits to work as journalists. David Lepeska, a freelancer who lived and worked in Turkey and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs and others, was denied entry to Turkey in April 2016. He was detained for several hours with no reason provided and forced to take an outbound flight. Veteran New York Times reporter Rod Nordland was briefly detained by border officials at Istanbul Ataturk Airport in January 2017 before being forced to take a flight back to London, with no explanation given as to why he had been refused entry into the country.

Perhaps the most underreported cases include the threats and harassment of foreign journalists who went to Turkey to cover specific issues that are deemed too sensitive for the Erdogan regime. Often, operatives working for the notorious National Intelligence Organization (MIT) led by Erdogan thug Hakan Fidan, trail these journalists, make them uncomfortable and even make phone calls to their hotel rooms in the middle of the night to scare them. I have been made aware of some cases that even included a New York Times reporter who was dispatched from a country in the Middle East to investigate jihadist networks in Turkey’s border provinces. No wonder The New York Times stopped using the bylines of reporters while covering Turkey earlier in 2017.

I have been approached by several international media outlets in recent years to write on some issues about Turkey that editors found too sensitive and did not want to assign to their own reporters based in Turkey in order to avoid putting them in a more difficult position than they were already in. In several cases, reporters simply declined to write for fear of backlash from the Turkish government. Another solution that foreign media outlets came up with to deal with the delicate situation is to dispatch reporters from headquarters to cover some topics in Turkey. Therefore, the reporter based in Turkey stays clear while his or her colleague from the same media outlet flies in, does some field work, wraps up the story and goes back before authorities get a chance to do something about the reporter.

Frustrated that the efforts to silence foreign journalists have proven to be in vain, the Turkish government has now adopted the wholesale approach of discrediting foreign journalists and media outlets. Speaking to the A Haber news channel, owned by Erdogan’s family, on Sept. 25, 2017, Cavusoglu said all German media groups from the left to the right are controlled by the German government’s stick and carrot policies. He said he knows that for sure all media outlets are in the pocket of the Merkel government. Similar accusations and implications were made in the past by others including Erdogan himself, but this was the first time a senior member of the Turkish government publicly accused the German government of unleashing the criticism of the entire media enterprise in the country against Turkey in a sinister plot.

The most vulnerable group of foreign journalists in Turkey appear to be those of Syrian descent, who face threats of violence and murder. Ibrahim Abdulqader, the founder of anti-ISIL information network Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, and Firaz Hamadi, a reporter with the Syrian Ayn Vatan newspaper, were murdered in October 2015. Both men were believed to be killed by ISIL militants who located the journalists’ apartment in Urfa, shot them in the head and beheaded them to send a chilling message to other Syrian journalists. Naji Jerf, a Syrian documentarian who reported on ISIL’s atrocities, was assassinated in Gaziantep in December 2015. In April 2016 Syrian journalist Mohammad Zahar al-Shurgat was shot and severely injured in Turkey’s southeastern province of Gaziantep. Just last week, Syrian opposition activist Orouba Barakat and her 22-year-old journalist daughter Halla were found murdered in their apartment in Istanbul. How these murders took place while Turkey’s intelligence keeps all foreign journalists under close surveillance certainly raises further questions.

It is clear that Turkey has become a dangerous country to cover on the ground when even foreign journalists are not spared from the government’s wrath. The relentless crackdown on freedom of the press, the systematic campaign to portray hardworking journalists as spies, the arbitrary application of the rules and regulations about the press and the failure to insure the safety and well-being of reporters have really taken a toll on Turkey’s reputation. There are certainly more cases out there to add, but the ones mentioned above should be enough to sound the alarm bells.

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