In recent weeks, Turkey has witnessed another major crackdown on free expression. On 27 August, British journalist Jake Hanrahan and cameraman Philip Pendlebury were arrested while reporting from southeastern Turkey along with two other colleagues. They were working for the international news organisation VICE News. One colleague was later released but Hanrahan, Pendlebury and their Iraqi fixer and translator, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, were subsequently charged with ‘working on behalf of a terrorist organisation’. After an international outcry and diplomatic intervention from the Foreign Office, Hanrahan and Pendlebury were released on 3 September and deported from Turkey. However, at the time of writing, Rasool remains in prison. He has worked for VICE News, the Associated Press and Al Jazeera and is studying for a master’s degree in international relations.
Seventy writers, including Monica Ali, Hanif Kureishi, Yann Martel, Elif Shafak and Ali Smith, have supported a PEN appeal to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan calling for the immediate release of Rasool. The letter expresses ‘extreme concern about the current crackdown on freedom of expression in Turkey’ and highlights Turkey’s ‘routine use of counter-terrorism legislation against the media’. It states:
We recognise that Turkey is facing a period of heightened tension. However at such a time it is more important than ever that both domestic and international journalists are allowed to do their vital work without intimidation, reporting on matters of global interest and concern.
A member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is a state party to both the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is therefore obliged to respect the right to freedom of expression and ensure that journalists are free to gather information without hindrance or threat.
On 9 September, the Turkish authorities deported Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink. Geerdink, who works for Dutch radio and also writes for The Independent, was detained on 5 September in Yüksekova, a town in southeastern Turkey, on suspicion of aiding Kurdish militants. She had been reporting on the actions of a group of thirty-two activists protesting against renewed violence between security forces and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The activists had entered a security zone in Hakkari, serving as human shields during a period of heavy fighting, and were detained as they tried to leave. Later, government officials claimed Geerdink was held for her own safety. Geerdink had previously been arrested in January this year and charged the following month with ‘making propaganda’ for the PKK and the Union of Communities in Kurdistan. She was acquitted in April.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Erdoğan continues to be intolerant of critics. Article 299 of the penal code, ‘Insulting the President’, carries a prison term of more than four years if content deemed to be offensive is published in the press. Writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker Can Dündar is one of those facing charges under Article 299. Dündar is well known for his literary work as well as for a series of biographies and documentaries regarding important figures in Turkish history, including the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the poet Nâzım Hikmet. As the chief editor of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, Dündar has been on trial since February for ‘insulting’ Erdoğan in a series of articles about a 2013 scandal that alleged the Turkish government was involved in corruption. One article, entitled ‘Erdoğan’s Soft Underbelly’, published on 1 July last year, examined the possible ramifications of Erdoğan’s presidency. Another, ‘It Is Our Right to Read the Police Reports’, published later that month, criticised the controversial handling of a major police investigation into alleged government corruption. The public prosecutor is seeking a two year, four month prison sentence for defamation of Erdoğan and a two year, two month prison sentence for defamation of his son Bilal.
Readers might like to send appeals calling on the Turkish authorities to decriminalise defamation, including defamation of the president, and to drop the cases against Can Dündar; calling for the immediate release of Mohammed Ismael Rasool; urging the authorities to allow journalists to fulfil their essential role of reporting events that are in the public interest and of international concern at a time of tension in Turkey and the wider region; and noting that Turkey has an obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a state party.
Appeals to be addressed to:
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Cumhurbaşkanlığı Sarayı, 06560, Beştepe, Ankara, Turkey
Fax: +90 312 525 58 31
His Excellency Abdurrahman Bilgiç
Turkish Embassy, 43 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PA
Fax: +44 20 7393 0066, +44 20 7393 9213
Readers might like to tweet support for Mohammed Ismael Rasool with the handle @vicenews and the hashtags
#FreeViceNewsStaff and #FreeRasool
Update: On 29 August, three Al Jazeera journalists, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste (LR, May 2014), were sentenced to three years in prison for operating without a press licence and broadcasting material harmful to Egypt after a retrial. On 23 September, Fahmy and Mohamed were pardoned by President Sisi and released from prison. Greste, who was deported from Egypt in February, was sentenced in absentia.