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Reporting under fire: Mezopotamya news agency

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Cevheri Güven

In Turkey, where more than 150 journalists are in prison, the Mezopotamya news agency (MA) stands out as the latest major target of the crackdown on the media. The agency reports mainly from the country’s predominantly Kurdish provinces, and five of its reporters have been arrested over the past few weeks. MA reporters are frequently prevented by the police from shooting videos on the streets, and they are categorically banned from access to public institutions. The agency’s archives and computer infrastructure have been repeatedly seized in police raids on its offices.

After a failed military coup in July 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government shut down 165 media outlets, a significant part of which belonged to the Kurdish media. MA, however, was established after the wave of shutdowns, in September 2017.

Turkish Minute spoke to Sedat Yılmaz, a news editor for MA, about the increasing targeting of the pro-Kurdish media, particularly his agency.

Intensified crackdown after report on lethal torture

The renewed wave of pressure on MA came on the heels of a hard-hitting report on an incident of torture.

On Sept. 11 two villagers were hospitalized in critical condition a few hours after being detained while in the company of their relatives and in good health. One of the villagers, 57-year-old Servet Turgut, died, while the other, Osman Şiban, 50, remained in intensive care for an extended period of time. MA published a detailed report on the torture the villagers were subjected to.

After the report’s release, the police raided MA’s office in the city of Van, seizing all the computers and digital equipment. Journalists Adnan Bilen and Cemil Uğur, who wrote the report, were arrested.

Five MA reporters are currently behind bars, and 40 employees of the agency are facing dozens of charges. Courts have delivered 27 separate rulings to block access to MA’s website.

Yılmaz explained how they decided to publish the report.

“There were journalists who knew about the torture of the two Van villagers before we did. But they never had the courage to report on it. We were informed later, and we published it knowing that it would spark a huge backlash,” he says.

“It needed to be reported, and we reported it. We did not even discuss whether or not to publish it when it arrived in our newsroom. Every editor has the final say with regard to rights violations like this.”

Faced with diverse methods of pressure

Yılmaz says the Kurdish media has been under attack for the last 30 years but that the assaults have recently changed in nature and have become more diverse.

“Today is the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Özgür Ülke newspaper, one of the most important newspapers of the Kurdish media. It was an attack carried out on the orders of then-Prime Minister Tansu Çiller. Some of the government officials of the time are still active on the political scene, and they are allied with the current ruling party. Anti-democratic practices and obstructions faced by journalists in the Kurdish media continue to this day. The Mezopotamya news agency is an organization that we joined forces to set up after the wave of shutdowns and confiscations against the Kurdish media,” Yılmaz says.

When comparing today with the past, Yılmaz says the methods of cracking down have become more diverse.

“In the ’90s, Turkey’s dynamics entailed rougher methods that were focused on killing. Seventy-eight of our colleagues were murdered in the same way: shot in the neck. Now, killings are not widespread, but seizures are. Media outlets are confiscated, reporters are blocked from doing their job. Shooting videos and photographs on the street is prohibited. This is also the case for other news outlets in Turkey. Bans on access to news reports and the shutdown of media institutions have been employed as tools of pressure,” he says.

‘People are afraid to talk to journalists’

Yılmaz believes the war on the media has made people afraid to speak with journalists, with even victims of torture refraining from speaking up out of fear their relatives will be harmed:

“The pressures have further undermined freedom of expression. In the past torture victims were able to speak out. But now, the victims’ friends, families and sources of income are also targeted. For instance, the victims do not want their names to be disclosed as they are faced with the risk of losing their spouses, siblings, parents or children. In the ’90s, people were able to reveal torture without their fathers being fired from their public sector jobs. Now, the victims get labeled as enemies of the state and their family members lose their jobs as a result.”

‘Our equipment is constantly being seized’

Yılmaz explains that they are also faced with financial pressures as the police raids make it difficult for them to keep reporting due to the confiscation of their computers, digital archives and other technical equipment.

“We are trying to make ends meet by relying on subscription fees. Our revenue and our company are under stringent auditing. We already do not have a large income, and our employees are not generously paid. As much as possible, we spend our resources on the agency’s technical development while also using them to allow our colleagues to make a living,” he says.

“The confiscation of our computers significantly hinders our reporting. Our archive, storage units and digital materials all vanish at once. We constantly have to rebuild our archive. We have difficulty reporting the daily news. Instead of advancing technologically, we frequently suffer setbacks.”

According to Yılmaz, “Seized equipment and arrested journalists create a gap between the reporters and their sources as the prevailing atmosphere intimidates people into not getting in touch with us. We do not have the same opportunities to report as before. This is a systemic issue wherein even victims of violence self-censor out of fear.”

‘Our employees are threatened’

In addition to arrests, Yılmaz says MA’s workers are systematically threatened, giving as an example an incident that took place in Ankara.

“Two weeks ago in Ankara, two of our colleagues were stopped by the police, who verbally threatened them. There have been many incidents like this. While journalists are exempted from curfews related to the pandemic, our workers are fined for going out on the street. A police officer in Van openly said, ‘The Mezopotamya agency will not broadcast,’ in front of all the journalists.”

Professional organizations silent

Yılmaz complains about the lack of support from local as well as international professional organizations in the face of the pressure.

“Local professional organizations and human rights NGOs in Turkey have always employed a timid, fearful and equivocal language. As to the representatives of international organizations, they are also a part of media outlets in Turkey, and they show the same reserve. I cannot say that we receive noteworthy support against the attacks that we are suffering.”

The reason for the pressure is our exposure of incidents: arrested journalist Karataş

Dindar Karataş, one of MA’s reporters who are under arrest, sent a message from prison through his lawyers in which he said: “The attacks on our agency are mainly caused by the fact that we have exposed the rights violations and torture that are taking place in the region.”

Taken into custody on November 24, Karataş was arrested on charges of membership in a terrorist organization due to his reporting and phone conversations with his sources.

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