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08 January

Foreign media - no longer immune in Turkey

NOAH BLASER

Ms. Geerdink's detention suggests Ankara's treatment of foreign journalists has reached a new, intimidating low

No one had charged her with a crime, but on Tuesday afternoon in the majority Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink was confronted on her doorstep by a squad of heavily armed police.

Driven to a nearby station and detained for three hours, Ms. Geerdink was presented with a photocopy of her Facebook profile, a smattering of tweets, and a series of columns she'd written for Diken, a Turkish journal roundly critical of Ankara’s governing style.
Police wanted to know: Wasn't her decision to move to Diyarbakir, where she has reported for Dutch radio and a variety of magazines since 2012, proof of her sympathies with the separatist PKK? Isn't it her mission “to use Twitter for spreading negative opinions about the state, and making propaganda for the terrorist PKK,” as police documents allege?

Ms Geerdink had tweeted news of her detention, and as the inquiry progressed, outrage was growing on social media.

Unfailingly, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan deepened the controversy, declaring just 20 minutes after Ms Geerdink's detention that “in no other country, not even those in Europe, is the a media as free a Turkey's.”

But when P24 spoke to Ms. Geerdink on Wednesday morning, she seemed equally angered and dismissive of her detention. “Really, it's laughable, though a clear attempt to intimidate.”

“The evidence against me isn't a deep dissection of my writings. It reads like an adolescent browsed my Twitter page,” she said acidly. “They asked, 'Have I met Cemil Bayik [the PKK's top military officer]?' Of course, and dozens of journalists publish interviews with him every year.”

Still, Ms. Geerdink's detention should be taken seriously. It suggests Ankara's treatment of foreign journalists has reached a new, intimidating low.

Since the AKP rose to power in 2002, foreign journalists have been largely immune to the prosecutory powers that haunt Turkey's domestic media.

But perceptions of immunity are wearing thin.

As Turkey's corruption scandal exploded in early 2014, Azeri citizen Mahir Zeynalov faced deportation for Tweets made while working at Today's Zaman, an english daily linked to Erdogan's clerical foe Fetullah Gülen.

Three months later, Der Spiegel withdrew its Turkey reporter Hasnain Kazim, who received a torrent of death threats over an article on the Soma mining disaster.

British national and New York Times reporter Ceylan Yeğinsu received her own steady supply of death threats in September, when her report about ISIS recruitment in Turkey sparked pro-government media outrage.

Detentions of foreign reporters also grew in 2014, and on Wednesday, Dutch-Turkish freelancer Mehmet Ulger was briefly detained at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport.

A pro-Ankara voice might explain away these cases. Perhaps Mr. Zeynalov's stay in Turkey was doomed by his affiliation with the Gülen movement. Mr. Kazim and Ms. Yeğinsu, though threatened, returned to Turkey after brief stays abroad.

Nor was Ms. Geerdink herself worried about censorship when she recently met this correspondent in Diyarbakir. Detention of a foreigner over the Kurdish issue seemed unlikely and old-fashioned, she reasoned.

Indeed, the most recent example is nearly 20 years old. In 1995, Reuters correspondent Aliza Marcus faced trial over a story on the forcible resettlement of Kurdish villages by the military. Rather than face the charges, she fled abroad.

“For most of its time in power, the AKP hasn't resorted this method,” said journalist Andrew Finkel. Mr. Finkel stood trial in 1999 for insulting the military in a Turkish-language article, but was later acquitted.

Suzan Erik, Ms. Geerdink's lawyer, saw parallels between Ms. Geerdink's case and trials of the past. “She isn't yet facing criminal charges, but there's clearly an investigation aimed at intimidating a [foreign] through misuse of the law.”

Puzzlingly, the detention comes after Ankara released dozens of Kurdish journalists indited in the KCK trial last year. (Their case, however, could soon be renewed).

Ankara also gave free reign to foreign journalists this autumn, when forces of the Islamic State besieged the Syrian border town of Kobane. From the safety of Turkey, correspondents penned heroic portraits of the town's PKK-affiliated defenders. The reports saw icy silence, not prosecution, from Ankara.

That seeming tolerance makes Ms. Geerdink's detention seem more arbitrary and worrisome. In opinion pieces, her tone is often unapologetically critical of the ruling party, but she has also called for attention regarding the PKK's own unreported crimes.
In his New Years address, President Erdogan christened 2015 as the year for solving Turkey's Kurdish issue.

Despite that goal - and sporadic street violence that now threatens it - national attention is likely to remain focused on parliamentary elections this June, nationwide economic woes, and a news agenda so grim that a World Bank official recently announced that Turkey has “returned to the 80s.”

Amid the distractions, Turkey will need watchful eyes on the southeast. One hopes that Ms. Geerdink will be given the chance to do her job.


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