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Turkey becoming minefield for foreign journalists

Three foreign reporters in Turkey have seen their accreditations terminated, while the renewal applications of 50 others remain unanswered since December, fueling concern that Ankara is seeking to drive the foreign media out.
German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel walks through a plane as he is flanked by a group of people at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Turkey, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir - UP1EE2G1ER906

Turkey is increasingly becoming a blacked-out country in terms of news reporting. With scores of media outlets shut down since 2016, Turkey’s mainstream media has come fully under government control, and now things are getting tougher for the foreign press as well. Government officials had targeted foreign journalists directly or used various methods to pressure them in the past, but Ankara’s refusal to renew accreditations is making their work in Turkey altogether impossible.

The problem, which has been going on for several months, came to the fore Feb. 28 at a high-level economic meeting between European Union and Turkish officials in Istanbul. A number of journalists, including reporters for prominent German media such as Suddeutsche Zeitung, ZDF, Tagesspiegel and ARD, were barred from the event, which led EU Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen to publicly chide the restrictions. Katainen said he deeply “regretted” the barring of the journalists, adding that the EU was working with Turkish authorities to make sure “freedom of the press is respected.”

In response, Turkey’s Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak acknowledged the accreditation controversy. “Some [reporters] have had their accreditations renewed. As you see, they are here, freely asking questions,” he said. “The accreditations of others have not been renewed. Every country’s press freedom functions according to its own rules. Some may have [their accreditations] renewed and can attend next year, and some may not.”

The real issue here is not about the ability of accredited journalists to freely ask questions, but the arbitrariness seen in the renewal of the government-issued press cards. Moreover, the problem is not limited to just several journalists.

Thomas Seibert, Tagesspiegel’s Turkey correspondent for more than two decades, Jorg Brase, the ZDF’s Istanbul bureau chief, and Halil Gulbeyaz, a reporter for the NDR channel, were notified in early February that their renewal applications had been rejected. According to the Foreign Media Association, renewal applications by at least 50 reporters from various countries remain unanswered since Dec. 31. Among them are Turkey veterans such as German journalist Susanne Gusten, who has never encountered such a problem before during her 22 years in the country.

How many of those journalists will have their accreditations extended remains unknown. The denial of accreditation effectively prevents foreign reporters from doing their jobs, but beyond that, it makes their stay in Turkey impossible because press cards are the prerequisite for residence permits. Hence, those denied renewal are forced to bid farewell to Turkey.

Journalists are informed of the rejections via email, with no grounds cited for the decision. The message simply reads, “Your press card renewal application for the year 2019 has not been granted.”

Gulbeyaz, who has already returned to Berlin, told Al-Monitor, “I was sent a brief message with no reason cited. The channel I work for protested and wrote a letter. The legal department will now appeal the decision. If we fail to obtain a result, we won’t be able to work in Turkey.”

Gulbeyaz believes his accreditation was terminated because of reports not to the government’s liking. “Documentaries I did about violations of human rights and press freedom could have caused annoyance. But that’s our job — our reports can be both positive and negative,” he said, “If they are sanctioning us only on the basis of our critical reports, that’s wrong. I did many cultural programs that contributed to Turkey’s promotion and I had received many positive reactions for them.”

Unlike the other German reporters, Gulbeyaz is of Turkish descent and a former Turkish citizen, which entitles him to residence rights in the country. What he hopes for, however, is to continue working as a Turkey correspondent, a post he has held for 12 years.

Press advocacy groups have called on the German government to put unequivocal pressure on Ankara. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert urged Turkey earlier this month to not obstruct the work of foreign reporters, stressing that critical reporting cannot be a reason to deny accreditations. Tagesspiegel editor-in-chief Mathias Muller von Blumencron, for his part, described the rejections as a “grave intervention” against press freedom.

Even before the latest controversy, Reporters Without Borders had written to the presidency’s communication department, which is in charge of the press cards, asking for a transparent evaluation of applications. Its letter, too, remains unanswered.

While the government does not bother to explain the rejections, pro-government media are waging a smear campaign against their foreign colleagues. The German-language website of the Sabah daily claimed March 5 that the journalists who were denied accreditation had links to the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization, the officialese for followers of Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen; the Gulenists are held responsible for the 2016 coup attempt. The website also claimed that Tagesspiegel’s Seibert wrote for the Ahval news site, which is the subject of an access ban in Turkey. “I have never written for Ahval,” Seibert tweeted. “Ahval has republished some of my articles for The Arab Weekly, without my knowledge.” The Arab Weekly also issued a statement, confirming that Seibert was one of its contributors and had nothing to do with Ahval. Yavuz Baydar, Ahval's editor-in-chief, denied any connection with Gulenists. "Ahval is an independent and free news website," he told Al-Monitor, adding that they were preparing to take legal action against the claims.

Why is the government turning Turkey into a minefield for foreign reporters?

Given that European journalists in particular are being crossed off, one could interpret the accreditation denial as a form of retaliation against the EU; Turkish-EU political and diplomatic tensions have risen significantly in recent years.

German journalists Deniz Yucel and Mesale Tolu, both of Turkish descent, spent a year and eight months behind bars respectively amid storms in Turkish-German relations in 2017. They were made political bargaining chips before being released and allowed to return to Germany last year.

The score-settling with the EU aside, Ankara refuses to acknowledge its domestic problems, including a serious economic crisis, and instead is trying to black out the realities. Hence, any uncontrollable media is a serious problem for the government.

The Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, Erol Onderoglu, said the government has turned the accreditation procedure into a tool of sanctioning and deterring journalists. He said that leaving applications unanswered or delaying decisions is the government’s way of saying, “We didn’t like your reporting, now you’ve fallen into my hands.”

Onderoglu told Al-Monitor that the treatment of German journalists in particular looked like a reaction against political spats with Germany. “Yet the accreditation and press card problem is a general, covert way of expressing discontent with journalists,” he added.

Referring to the upcoming municipal elections March 31, he said, “The rejection or stalling of press card applications ahead of local elections will make things difficult for those media outlets. For a government that keeps the [Turkish] mainstream media under control, restricting the international media in a tough election season is not surprising.”

Taking advantage of the state of emergency after the botched coup attempt in July 2016, Ankara shut down scores of media entities, including 31 TV channels, 34 radio stations, five news agencies, 62 newspapers and 19 magazines, and took the mainstream media under control. Now that the economic crisis is threatening to deal the ruling party electoral blows, Ankara feels compelled to scrutinize all platforms that can sway public opinion. Ankara is confident that those outside its control in the national media are not capable of such influence. And what about the foreigners? Since domestic censure mechanisms cannot extend abroad, booting foreign journalists out emerges as a convenient solution. Journalists who have managed to remain in Turkey are expected to be “amenable” to avoid the fate of colleagues who had to leave.

Foreign reporters have largely refrained from raising their voices thus far, hoping that silence will help them overcome problems. The fear of deportation is strong. Many journalists and writers known as Turkey experts are trying to stay away from the country, fearful of being detained or deported. Apprehension is particularly strong among those who have closely covered the Kurdish question. Some have chosen to follow Turkey and the region from Athens or Nicosia rather than Istanbul, but remain reluctant to speak out, wary of losing contacts and sources.

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