Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the increase in censorship in Turkey – including “patriotic journalism” directives and a wave of arrests of critical journalists – that has accompanied the Turkish government’s three-day-old military offensive against Kurdish fighters in northwestern Syria’s Afrin region.
The editors of Turkey’s leading media outlets were summoned to a meeting on 21 January at which Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım – accompanied by the deputy prime minister, the defence minister and the ruling AKP’s spokesman – gave them 15 “recommendations” on how to cover the military operations in a “patriotic” manner.
Lesson in “patriotic journalism”
Journalists were told to “take account of national interests when quoting international news sources critical of Turkey,” to “remember the care taken by the armed forces not to harm civilians” and to “not highlight demonstrations and statements” by political organisations that support Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In essence, the aim of the directives is to put the Turkish media at the service of the government and its war goals.
The prime minister told them to avoid “news reports liable to boost the morale” of the PKK and the PYD, a Syrian Kurdish party, and to contact government and AKP representatives “to get good information.” He also told them to mistrust reports in the international media, claiming that the PYD uses many foreign journalists, especially in the United States and Europe.
“The new flood of propaganda, the increase in the witchhunt against critics and the almost complete absence of any debate about this military offensive all highlight the degree to which pluralism has collapsed in Turkey,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“Not content with its stranglehold on the media landscape, the government is now trying to assert complete control over everything that the media report, at the risk of undermining public trust and fuelling tension.”
Social network arrests
More than 100 warrants for the arrest of “terrorist propaganda” suspects have been issued in the past two days. The victims have included Nurcan Baysal, a writer and columnist for the T24 news website, who is being held by anti-terrorist police in Diyarbakır, a city in southeastern Anatolia with a Kurdish majority. Her lawyer said her arrest was prompted by tweets criticizing the Afrin military offensive.
İshak Karakaş, the editor of the newspaper Halkın Nabzı and a columnist for the exile news website Artı Gerçek, was arrested in Istanbul on the night of 21 January, while Arti TV’s correspondent in Ankara, Sibel Hürtaş, and two reporters for the pro-Kurdish news agency Mezopotamya, Hayri Demir and Seda Taşkın, were arrested last night.
This new wave of intimidation has had repercussions beyond Turkey’s borders. Yesterday, hundreds of angry protesters attacked the headquarters of the newspaper Afrika in North Nicosia, the capital of Turkish-recognized Northern Cyprus, smashing its windows with stones and removing a sign with the newspaper’s name while police looked on without intervening.
The day before, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had publicly decried Afrika as “immoral” for describing the Afrin offensive as a “new occupation by Turkey” after its occupation of Northern Cyprus in 1974. “They will have to answer for this to my brothers and sisters,” Erdogan warned.
First media injury in military offensive
RSF has learned that Ronahi TV cameraman Zekeriya Şêxo was injured by Turkish army gunfire while covering fighting near Rajo, a town 30 km north of the city of Afrin. He was taken to Afrin with injuries to the stomach and legs that were not life-threatening.
RSF calls on the belligerents to respect the civilian status of journalists, and reminds journalists that RSF has a safety manual for reporters operating in war zones that can be downloaded from its website.
Turkey is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. The already worrying media situation has become critical under the state of emergency that was proclaimed after a coup attempt in July 2016. Around 150 media outlets have been closed, mass trials are being held and the country now holds the world record for the number of professional journalists detained.