In Case of Emergency

Turkey’s assault on press freedom gags pro-Kurdish journalists

Employees at IMC TV were shaken, but not surprised, when the police shut down the channel on 4 October. ozan kose / afp / getty images
01 December, 2016

ON 4 OCTOBER, a police squad barged into the Istanbul studio of IMC TV—a nationwide Turkish channel. Utku Zirig, the presenter of that day’s programme, did not stop the broadcast. In a video recording of the event, posted to Youtube on the same day, Zirig narrates the disruption with a steady voice. The video shows many members of his production team filming the action with their mobile phones, and following the police around as they shut down the channel. Zirig’s co-host, IMC TV’s general manager, can be seen shaking his arm frantically, inviting the police into the studio and addressing them with a phrase President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had uttered months earlier to condemn terrorists: “For demons, long live hell.”

On 15 July, a faction of Turkey’s military unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow Erdogan’s democratically elected government, leaving 265 people dead. After the coup failed, Erdogan declared an ongoing state of emergency, which allows him to decree laws without the approval of parliament. Since then, his regime has been arresting journalists and closing media outlets seen as oppositional to the government, often charging them with terrorism-related crimes. The government has shuttered 168 outlets, many of which had alleged links to Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric accused of instigating the coup. However, this press crackdown has also affected another group: pro-Kurdish journalists. Out of the 107 journalists who are currently in prison in Turkey, 29 worked for pro-Kurdish outlets. Many pro-Kurdish outlets, including IMC TV, have been shut down because they are accused of having ties with Kurdish separatists—who have for years been labelled terrorists in Turkey.

From 1984 through 2013, the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, led an armed struggle against the government, calling for an independent Kurdish state. After more than 40,000 people died in the fighting, Erdogan championed a 2013 ceasefire. That ended in July 2015, as armed clashes raged between Turkish armed forces and the PKK in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish south-eastern region. Since the ceasefire ended, more than 355,000 civilians have been displaced, and at least 388 killed.

On 6 November, I spoke with IMC TV’s Zirig, in a café in Istanbul. Smoking one hand-rolled cigarette after another, the 31-year-old journalist said that his colleagues at the channel had been expecting to get shut down. Mainstream outlets had been alleging that IMC TV was tied to the PKK. “We learned that the state had ordered to shut us down through the state’s news agency,” he recalled. “There was no court decision; they sued us for being a threat to national security.” Since the channel’s closure, Zirig said, he has become “a celebrity” in the south-east—where most of IMC TV’s viewers live. “The situation now is legal censorship,” he said. The government has “the right to close down outlets, the right to arrest anyone they want.”

JINHA, an entirely woman-run, pro-Kurdish news agency, was also closed in this recent wave; the police shuttered their office on 29 October, in the middle of the night. In defiance of the gag, JINHA has maintained its social-media accounts, and kept its website alive through the use of a European internet domain. “Making news about Kurdistan has always been difficult,” said Dilan Karamanoglu, a 25-year-old editor at the agency. “We won’t stop publishing; we won’t be silenced.”

Pro-Kurdish journalists have faced challenges when reporting in Turkey’s south-east, even before the coup. Since the collapse of the ceasefire, in July 2015, the government has restricted access there for independent journalists and international media, but allows state media in. Before the coup, Beritan Canözer, a JINHA reporter, spent three months in prison for covering a protest against the state-imposed curfew in the south-eastern city of Sur. The police told her she had been detained for “being too excited,” Karamanoglu said, adding that another journalist, Vildan Atmaca, also spent three months in a prison in November 2015. Atmaca was charged with protesting, Karamanoglu said, when she was in fact covering a protest. According to Yasin Kobulan, a 29-year-old who worked for the now-closed, pro-Kurdish Dicle Haber Agency, or DHA, when there was confrontation between the Turkish armed forces and PKK fighters, authorities would often arrest journalists or physically escort them away from the zone of conflict. Many times, Kobulan said, “the police would detain me and not give me any reasons.”

Before Karamanoglu could finish speaking with me, she received a phone call. Two female reporters from JINHA had been arrested while covering a women’s-rights demonstration in Istanbul. Karamanoglu, who is JINHA’s go-to person in such situations, put on her jacket and set out for the police station. “They will probably be released tomorrow morning,” she said, seeming distressed but composed.

In early November, the government arrested 13 senior staff members of Cumhuriyet, a major left-leaning newspaper, on charges of terrorism. The arrests caused a global outcry by human-rights groups and international organisations. On 5 November, Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, condemned Turkey’s attacks on press freedom by calling the detentions “yet another red line crossed against freedom of expression in Turkey.”

In response, Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, rejected Europe’s stand in a televised speech. “They keep putting press freedom in front of us whenever we take steps in combating terror,” he said. “What importance does your line have? We’ll draw a line over your line.”

Bilge Yesil, a media-studies professor at the College of Staten Island, told me over Skype that such criticism has no effect on the actions of Turkey’s government. Instead, she said, Erdogan’s regime simply uses European censure to drum up nationalist “talking points” and “energise their domestic voter base.” Yesil also claimed that, in Turkey, “the scale and the severity of restrictions imposed on journalists is much worse than what it used to be.” In her recent book, which tackles issues of the media and government in Turkey, she argues that current press restrictions are as severe as they were after the country’s 1980 military coup. That coup, she contends, paved the way for the implementation of the legal tools that the government employs to silence dissent today.

Erdogan’s regime does, however, have friends in the media. Some pro-government outlets are officially state-run. Others are privately owned, but still widely understood to be government mouthpieces. Over the phone, I spoke with a young Turkish journalist who works for Turkey’s leading pro-government newspaper. “If the coup attempt had been successful,” he said, “I would be in prison now.” I asked him about journalists who are accused of terrorism. “I don’t sympathise with them,” he responded. “I know guys from these newspapers who are journalists by day, and by night, set cars on fire. I know a guy who has ties with the PKK.” He also criticised the Western media’s tendency to describe what is happening in Turkey by harping on its supposed deficiencies in democracy and regard for civil liberties. “You can’t understand Turkey through a Western window,” he said.

In the wake of this clampdown, many journalists are turning to social media. Some projects in this vein have been Haber Siz Siniz, a social-media platform, and 140journos, a citizen-journalism initiative that rose to prominence in 2013, after Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests. These platforms are “collective media, volunteer-based,” said Kobulan, the journalist who was with DHA, and who is now working freelance and engaging in social-media journalism. For independent journalists, he said, there are currently no job opportunities. But “the money is the last thing we can discuss,” he added. “We are trying to save our profession.”

Deniz Kangeroglu, a 25-year-old JINHA reporter, said she was not discouraged by the fact that Kurdish journalists are vulnerable to persecution. “I wanted to make what is happening visible,” she said. “I don’t know what’s waiting for me, but I want to continue.”