Turkey's woeful record on press freedom came to international attention again this week when three German photojournalists were arrested and detained on October 11 in south-eastern Diyarbakir, accused of being spies and provocateurs.
Ruben Neugebauer, Björn Kietzmann, and Christian Grodotzki traveled to the city to cover clashes between rival political groups and security forces, amid mass unrest in Kurdish regions in response to Ankara's passive approach to a major Islamic State offensive on the majority Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobane.
Speaking with VICE News from the southern city of Antakya on Thursday while booking flights back to Germany, Neugebauer explained that he, Kietzmann and Grodotzki travelled to Diyarbakir after working on another project further west.
Things were quiet when they arrived, Neugebauer said, but he and his colleagues expected clashes and roamed the streets for a couple of hours until they found some protesters using pieces of furniture to construct a barricade across a road. They took pictures, but retreated into a local supermarket when the demonstrators torched the barricade and police moved in shooting tear gas. Once things outside appeared to have calmed down somewhat, they began to walk back towards their car.
On the way, a group of men — civil police, the journalists now assume — stopped them and radioed for an armored vehicle. Uniformed officers then violently arrested them along with two unfortunate tourists nearby. "They pushed us, kicked us, and threw our equipment to the ground, our press cards on the street and punched one of the tourists," Neugebauer recalled. "Quite rough for an arrest."
Officers then took them to the headquarters of Diyarbakir's Anti-Terrorism unit, made the Germans stand in a row facing the wall and verbally abused them — with Hitler jokes among other things — while taking camera phone pictures, some of which subsequently appeared in local newspapers.
Meanwhile, photographs taken by police from the journalists' cameras were published in the local pro-government press next to stories accusing the Germans of paying protesters to burn the barricades. Neugebauer added that he is pretty sure police attempted to hack his phone too — when it was returned to him, some of the settings had been changed.
'One of the guys in the police station said that he was sorry we were there and that the police officers on the streets might really have thought that we were spies.'
The photographers were released after 31 hours of detention, when lawyers sent by the German embassy and another by colleagues started working the case, and their arrests gained widespread media attention. They are still officially under investigation, but were not deported and managed to retrieve their equipment and belongings.
Yet they have not been the only members of the international press to be targeted while covering Kobane or the associated protests. In one well-publicized incident, police fired teargas canisters at a BBC minibus near the Kobane border crossing, setting it on fire.
Johann Bihr, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, told VICE News: "We have noted several cases of attacks against journalists trying to cover the riots and demonstrations by the police… Obviously no lessons have been learnt from the Gezi Park protests [in 2013 which saw heavy-handed policing and attacks on members of the press] and other precedents. Disproportionate use of force is still employed by police against journalists and demonstrators."
President Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly accused foreign journalists of inciting unrest, in an apparent attempt to imply that Kurdish separatists, supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — who Ankara opposes — and members of the press are plotting against Turkey. On October 13 herailed against modern day "Lawrence of Arabias" looking to interfere in Turkish affairs while "disguised as journalists, religious men, writers, and terrorists."
Erdogan's combative stance is likely to fuel hostility toward members of the press from both security forces and civilians. Bihr continued: "It's one more sign that Ankara is still colluding journalism with terrorism and that independent journalism is not understood by President Erdogan."
Neugebauer suspects that the president's comments might have directly led to their arrest. "One of the guys in the police station said that he was sorry we were there and that the police officers on the streets might really have thought that we were spies," he said. "If politicians say something like that, then the local police officers believe it."
But international media are not the only independent news organizations in Turkey, nor are they the only ones to be targeted by authorities. As usual, local journalists have suffered far more seriously over the past few weeks, particularly those working for outlets opposed to Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party.
Four reporters working for pro-Kurdish media outlets were attacked by thugs with knives while covering demonstrations in Diyarbakir on October 2, Reporters Without Borders said. One, Bisar Durgut, was taken to hospital with eight stab wounds. At least four others were injured while covering demonstrations further north in Istanbul and Ankara.
Esra Ciftci of the pro-Kurdish paper, Ozgur Gundem, told a delegation from the Turkish Freedom for Journalists coalition visiting the border around Kobane that she had been beaten by police while following injured people being taken to hospital. Others reported being rammed by police vehicles and, like the BBC crew, having teargas canisters fired at their cars.
Turkey currently ranks 154th out of 180 countries in the 2014 RSF press freedom index.
There have also been numerous arrests and Bihr said there are still around 20 media workers, mainly from Kobane itself, who have been detained in Turkey after crossing the border. Most are among the more than 200 held in Suruc, previously reported by VICE News.
More are detained in Diyarbakir, Ozan Kilinc, the head of the city's Free Press Association, told VICE News. That would tally with the German photographers' accounts of seeing TV cameras stored in the police station where they were held and speaking with another detainee who said he was a journalist.
It would not be surprising. Turkey was until recently the world's worst jailer of journalists and it currently ranks 154th out of 180 countries in the 2014 RSF press freedom index. Kurdish and left-wing journals critical of the government have suffered particularly rough treatment. Kurds in particular have suffered widespread arrest and detainment, often due to reporting on the oppression of the Kurdish identity or clashes between government forces and the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Kurdish journalists are often labeled as terrorists as a result.
Asked about conditions for media in Turkey, Kilinc sounded gloomy. "Really, there is no freedom of press," he said with a wry smile, naming four colleagues and members of the association who had been detained during the week.
That same day, Kadri Bagdu, a vendor for Turkey's only daily Kurdish newspaper Azadiya Welat was murdered by gunmen in Adana.
Kilinc, who was himself jailed for three years for mentioning the PKK in the newspaper he edited, added that there had been less pressure on the Kurdish media recently, but that since Turkish and Kurdish media had began covering Kobane from widely different perspectives, this has changed.
For Bihr, this is symptomatic of an ongoing deterioration in working conditions for journalists in Turkey. Recent developments in press freedom have been somewhat paradoxical. Last year around 60 media workers were behind bars in Turkey for doing their jobs. Now, RSF says, there are less than 10 after the majority were granted conditional release. Fifteen years ago, journalists critical of authorities were gunned down instead of imprisoned. Today, a media career with an opposition newspaper is significantly less life threatening.
However, the government is now cracking down on critical media coverage both via traditional means of violence and detainment, as well through more subtle methods, Bihr said. These include applying financial pressure, lodging official complaints against specific journalists, initiating criminal proceedings, and increasing internet censorship.
The result, Bihr added is that members of the press are forced to follow the official line or face punishment, and minority voices, such as Kurds, are sidelined. "Pluralism is being narrowed month after month. Maybe the ways of cracking down on criticism are a bit more discreet… but it doesn't mean that violations have disappeared. In fact we are monitoring an increase…. the attitude of the government is still very negative [towards independent media] and it's finding new ways to silence criticism."
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