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Turkey ramps up pressure on Kurdish journalists with mass detentions

The detentions are part of a campaign against journalists working for outlets that report on rights abuses, particularly in the Kurdish-majority southeast.
Peoples' Democratic Party's Zuleyha Gulum holds a banner "Truths cannot be obscured."

Turkish police on Tuesday detained 12 journalists working for various Kurdish news outlets in pre-dawn raids in Ankara, Istanbul and Manisa and the predominantly Kurdish cities of Mardin, Diyarbakir, Urfa and Van.

The detentions are part of an escalating campaign against journalists working for outlets that report on rights abuses particularly in the Kurdish majority southeast, including the Mezopotamya News Agency and the all-female JINNEWS. Diren Yurtsever, editor-in-chief of Mezopotamya, was among seven women who were remanded in custody today. All were brought to Ankara where they are being held at the Ankara Security Directorate’s counterterrorism branch.

Journalists present during the raids described violent scenes. Police with long-range rifles “forced me to lay face down on the floor and sat on top of me as they handcuffed me,” said Dilan Babat, a reporter for JINNEWS, who shared a flat with fellow female reporters in Ankara. Babat told ArtiGercek, an independent online news outlet, that police had seized all their equipment, including their laptops and mobile phones. “There was a lot of cursing and insults,” she said.

Zemo Aggoz, a reporter for Mezopotamya, was allowed to nurse her six-week-old infant only following an outcry on social media.

In June, 16 other journalists working for those and various other dissident publications were detained and remain behind bars. They have yet to be indicted.

The journalists are accused of acting on behalf of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — a catch-all charge that can be randomly leveled against anyone who highlights institutionalized impunity against Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. The Ankara Security Directorate said in a statement that the journalists were engaged in illegal “organizational activities” and produced news that “incited hatred and spite among the people” and that they functioned "under the Press Council of the PKK/KCK terrorist organization.” It published footage of the detentions on its official Twitter feed.

“Turkey regularly abuses anti-terror laws to target journalists, who are frequently subject to arbitrary charges and imprisonment. The detentions fit a pattern of serious attacks on press freedom on Turkey,” said the International Press Institute, a Vienna-based watchdog, in a statement today.

Turkey ranks among the world’s top jailer of journalists, and pressure on the media is intensifying in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections that are due to be held by June 18. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled the country since 2002, has seen its popularity dip as the country grapples with runaway inflation and growing youth unemployment.

The Coalition for Women in Journalism, an advocacy group, said that Turkey ranked first among countries detaining women journalists with 28 detained since the start of this year, followed by Russia, which has detained 20 of them.

Last week, parliament approved a “censorship” bill that makes “disseminating false information” a criminal offense with prison sentences of between one to three years, just one of a swathe of other draconian amendments targeting free speech and online communication.

Zekeriya Gozupek, a reporter for Mezopotamya who is based in Diyarbakir, detects a link between today’s arrests and calls to investigate allegations by the PKK that the Turkish military is using chemical weapons against it in Iraqi Kurdistan. The allegations, which have yet to be substantiated, have been widely covered by Mezopotamya and other pro-Kurdish news outlets. “It’s clear that the government wants to put the lid on such reporting through its usual intimidation tactics, but we refuse to yield,” Gozupek told Al-Monitor.

Turkey categorically denies the use of any chemical agents. Turkey’s Ministry of National Defense said in an Oct. 20 statement that the claims were “baseless and untruthful” and vowed to pursue its fight against the PKK until the “last terrorist is immobilized.” 

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