Reporters Without Borders calls for a de-escalation in tension and respect for freedom of information in Turkey. Tension has mounted dangerously since last week’s suicide bombing in Suruç and the media have been affected both by government censorship and generalized violence amid a resumption in fighting with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Viewing the government as the accomplices of Islamic State, whose 20 July bombing in Suruç left 32 dead and more than 100 wounded, the PKK has been targeting Turkish policemen and soldiers, and government forces have responded with air strikes on both Islamic State in Syria and the PKK in Iraq.
The peace process between the government and Kurdish rebels that began in late 2012 is now completely derailed. At the same time, clashes have erupted throughout the country between the security forces and various opposition groups. In the name of “combatting terrorism,” the authorities have arrested hundreds of activists, especially in pro-Kurdish circles. And journalists are paying dearly for this decline in the political climate.
Shortly after the start of the air strikes, the High Council for Telecommunications (TIB) ordered the blocking of around 100 news and information websites on 25 July. And, in accordance with recent amendments to Internet legislation, court decisions subsequently endorsed these orders.
According to a list compiled by Engelli Web, a specialist website, at least 65 of the targeted sites are pro-Kurdish ones. They include the sites of the Özgür Gündem newspaper, the DIHA, ANHA and ANF news agencies, the Rojnews and BestaNûçe TV stations, and local newspapers such as Yüksekova Haber and Cizre Haber.
Rudaw, a news website that supports the ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan, and left-wing news outlets such as Sendika.org and the ETHA news agency have also been blocked.
A total of 23 Twitter accounts have also been rendered inaccessible since 25 July and the entire Twitter website was blocked for several hours on 22 July after a local magistrates’ court banned photos and video of the Suruç bombing.
Dozens of journalists yesterday brought a complaint against Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç for accusing the Evrensel and Özgür Gündem newspapers on 24 July of being “criminal machines.” The Reporters Without Borders representative in Turkey, Erol Önderoglu, supported this initiative.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu meanwhile invited leading Turkish news media editors and executives to a briefing yesterday about the ongoing “anti-terrorist operations” and used the occasions to remind them of the government’s “red lines,” as Recep Tayyip Erdogan previously did at the height of the clashes with the PKK in 2011.
The editors of three newspapers that support the religious and social movement led by US-based preacher Fethullah Gülen – Zaman, Taraf and Bugün – and the editor of the left-wing daily Birgün were not invited to the briefing.
“What with their massive censorship of Kurdish newspapers and their attempts to control other media outlets, the authorities seem to be succumbing to their old reflexes,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“But far from calming things down, this repressive spiral will only accentuate frustrations and help to fuel tension. A return to the peace process and the continuation of democratic reforms, including reforms that encourage freedom of information, are an integral part of the solution to regional security challenges.”
Bihr added: “A relaxation of the taboo on covering Kurdish issues was one of the very few positive aspects of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s record, one otherwise marked by increasingly authoritarian excesses. A drastic reduction in the space for democratic debate would be disastrous for Turkish society and for the Turkish government’s international obligations.”
On 24 July, the security forces defused a bomb outside the headquarters of the pro-government Star media group for which the MLKP, a small, far-left organization, was widely held responsible. The Star media group nonetheless issued a statement attacking the HDP, a pro-Kurdish party, and the Dogan media group, which supports the Kemalist opposition.
Cüneyt Yavuz, a journalist with the Özgür Gündem daily, was injured by a teargas grenade during clashes between police and far-left activists in Istanbul on 26 July. He was covering a police operation near a mosque that was preventing the burial of a female activist who had been killed two days earlier.
In response to the attacks on the media, Reporters Without Borders urges all parties to act with restraint and to do everything possible to ensure that journalists are able to work safely.
Turkey is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
(Photos: Ozan Kose / AFP)