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Freedom of information needed for public debate, and to restore calm
Full and responsible news coverage is more necessary than ever in Turkey, now in the throes of the most violent rioting in a decade. Reporters Without Borders calls for the release of media workers currently in police custody and urges the authorities to do what is necessary to protect journalists and facilitate their work.
The Jihadi organization Islamic State’s siege of Kobane, Syria’s third biggest Kurdish city, is the source of the current tension in Turkey. Around 30 people have been killed in clashes between political groups or clashes with the police since 7 October. At the same time, it has become very difficult for journalists throughout the country, especially in the southeast, to cover the unrest.
Violence against journalists
At least four journalists have been attacked or injured during pro-Kurdish, Islamist or nationalist demonstrations in the past few days. Necati Savas, a photographer with the daily Cumhuriyet, was injured in the head in Ankara on the afternoon of 7 October by a teargas canister fired by the police.
After projectiles fired by rioters in the Okmeydani district of Istanbul injured Sebnem Coskun, a photographer with the partly state-owned news agency Anatolia, and cameraman Melik Firat Yücel on 7 October, doctors ordered three days of medical leave for both. Hayat TV reporter Duygu Ayber was injured by police near Istanbul’s Taksim Square on 6 October.
Four reporters for pro-Kurdish media – Bisar Durgut and Nihat Kutlu of the daily Azadiya Welat and Beritan Canözer and Sarya Gözüoglu of the women’s news agency JINHA – sustained stab wounds when attacked by demonstrators in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir on 2 October. Durgut was rushed to hospital with no fewer than eight knife wounds.
The situation is especially tense near the Syrian border. A BBC minibus caught fire when police fired three teargas grenades at it near a border post in Mürsitpinar (in Suruç district), which is very close to Kobane. The minibus’ occupants – six people including Paul Adams and Piers Scholfield of the BBC – were able to take cover.
After visiting the border, a delegation from the Turkish coalition Freedom for Journalists (GÖP) presented a report on 8 October, denouncing the police violence experienced by many journalists in the border region.
Esra Ciftçi, a reporter for the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem, told the delegation she was badly beaten by police while covering three injured people being taken to hospital last week. A TV10 reporter said police fired a teargas grenade at his vehicle’s windshield, on the driver’s side. He also reported that a riot police vehicle deliberate rammed his crew’s satellite dish.
A news agency journalist confirmed that “the security forces prevented journalists from working,” adding that some reporters were also attacked by the local population.
“The authorities have a duty to protect media personnel,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “It is clear that, in this respect, no lessons have been learned from the Gezi Park protests.”
Access obstructed, journalists in custody
Bihr added: “We call on the authorities to grant journalists full access to the southeastern regions and the border areas without discrimination, regardless of whether they have an official press card.”
Journalists without an official press ID issued by the prime minister’s office are being denied access to certain areas along the Syrian border that have been declared “military zones.”
Since 5 October, this has included the hill directly across the border from Kobane, which the media have been using as a vantage point for following the fighting in and around the city. Many journalists, including reporters from pro-Kurdish media such as the news agency DIHA, are being refused access because they lack the essential press pass.
The same restrictions are in place in the regions where a curfew was imposed after the violence of 7 October. Only journalists with a press card are able to move about freely there although, like the public, they are exposed to violence and hampered by the many army barriers. The curfew was lifted yesterday in Mardin and Batman provinces but is still partly in place in Diyarbakir and some districts of Van and Siirt.
According to Diyarbakir’s Free Journalists’ Association (ÖGC), around 20 employees of Kurdish and Kobane media have been in police custody in Suruç* since 6 October. In all, around 160 people have been arrested on entering Turkey from Syria and are being held at a sports centre in Suruç pending interrogation.
Reached by phone, fixer Perwer Mihamed Ali told Reporters Without Borders Turkey representative that “all of Kobane’s freelance journalists” were in police custody and were on hunger strike.
The ÖGC also reported that four journalists were arrested in the Van region. Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate release of all detained media employees.
Media coverage in question
Some Turkish TV news stations have provided very limited coverage of these events, prompting expressions of concern on 7 October about a return of the self-censorship seen during the Gezi Park protests.
“In view of the crucial importance of these on-going events for Turkey and the entire region, any attempt to suppress or doctor coverage would be unacceptable,” Reporters Without Borders deputy programme director Virginie Dangles said.
“We urge the media to provide complete coverage while refraining from fuelling tension unnecessarily. The peace process between the government and the PKK is too important in every respect, including for freedom of information, to be sacrificed to short-term political advantages.”
Coverage of the rioting in the leading national dailies has been very polarized and marked by political divisions.
The nationalist daily Sözcü’s front-page headline on 8 October was, “PKK uses Kobane as pretext to devastate the country.” But the pro-Kurdish Özgür Gündem’s headline was, “All the streets are Kobanes.” The Islamist Yeni Safak pointed at the main opposition parties, headlining, “CHP and HDP have provoked Turkey’s enemies.”
Turkey is ranked 154th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
* The media workers in police custody are: Ranya Mihamed, Dicle Sexo, Xezne Nebi, Xwinav Isa, Sara Mahmud, Nazdar Ali, Evin Ali, Dilisan Ibis, Ranya Ali, Mizgin Kurdo, Mustafa Faris, Mustafa Bali, Mustafa Mihamed Ali, Ahmed Ibrahim, Mustafa Ali, Perwer Mihamed Ali, Mihamed Isa, Ehmed Mustafa, Heysem Müslim and Isa Mihamed.