Turkey arrests journalists, activist on terror charges

Christophe Deloire (left), Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) speaks in Istanbul last December (AFP Photo/Ozan Koze)

Istanbul (AFP) – Turkey arrested the local representative of international rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on “terrorist propaganda” charges Monday, in the latest crackdown on the media in the country.

Erol Onderoglu as well as journalist Ahmet Nesin and rights activist and academic Sebnem Korur Fincanci, were charged after taking part in a campaign of solidarity with a pro-Kurdish newspaper in May.

RSF swiftly condemned the charging and detention of the three in a post on Twitter.

“Unbelievable low for press freedom in Turkey. Free Erol!” said the tweet from the Paris-based organisation’s eastern Europe and central Asia desk.

About 100 people rallied at the Istanbul courthouse to support the three as they were sent to pre-trial detention, chanting, “We will not bow to pressure”.

The international community has voiced increasing alarm about the erosion of press freedoms in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it was “appalled” by the detention of the three, describing it as a “most severe blow to freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey”.

The arrests come despite the European Union pressuring Ankara to reform its terrorism laws to stop prosecuting academics and journalists for publishing so-called “terror propaganda”.

The three had in May taken symbolic control of pro-Kurd newspaper Ozgur Gundem, which has been in the crosshairs of the Turkish authorities for years, sparking a judicial enquiry against them.

– Little tolerance for criticism –

The paper, seen by the authorities as close to outlawed Kurdish rebel group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has often been closed down, according to media reports.

Turkey is waging a large-scale military offensive against the PKK in the Kurdish majority southeast, and clamped down on those Ankara sees as supporting what it and its Western allies consider a terrorist group.

Onderoglu has represented RSF in Turkey since 1996, while Nesin is a well known writer and journalist, and Fincanci is an academic who heads the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey.

Several thousand people including journalists, politicians and the occasional celebrity, have faced prosecution for allegedly insulting Erdogan, who has shown little tolerance for criticism since becoming president in 2014 after more than a decade as prime minister.

RSF ranks Turkey 149th out of 180 countries in its latest World Press Freedom Index for 2015.

Ankara has also taken a hard line against Kurdish activists after almost a year of renewed PKK violence against the Turkish state that shattered a two-and-a-half year truce.

Last month, parliament adopted a highly controversial bill that would lift immunity for dozens of pro-Kurdish and other MPs and could see them evicted from the legislature.

The EU has called for changes to the country’s terrorism law under a controversial migrant deal that promises visa-free access for Turks, increased aid and speeded up accession talks.

The deal agreed in March seeks to secure Ankara’s help in stemming the flow of migrants crossing into EU member Greece, but Turkey faces a July 1 deadline to meet the conditions if it is to win the visa-free travel.

Erdogan has however refused to amend the laws, saying Turkish authorities see “no difference” between individuals carrying weapons or indulging in “terrorist” propaganda.

Turkish armed forces have been waging a bloody campaign against PKK militants in the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country.

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) — seen as a splinter group of the PKK — has waged several attacks in Ankara and Istanbul in what it said was revenge for the army offensive.

Over 40,000 people have been killed since the PKK took up arms in 1984 demanding an independent state for Kurds. Since then the group has narrowed its demands to greater autonomy and cultural rights.

On Sunday, Erdogan told reporters that 7,000 PKK rebels had been “neutralised” since the conflict flared again in mid-2015 while 600 have died among the ranks of Turkish security forces.