The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), expressed concern over the arrest of four journalists during a raid on the offices of the pro-Kurdish news agency Mezopotamya Ajansı (MA) in the Turkish province of Van. This was in response to their role in reporting on allegations that Turkish soldiers tortured two civilians, Osman Şiban and Servet Turgut, and threw them out of a helicopter. Turgut later died in hospital.
Raid on editorial office
On 6 October 2020, MA reporters Adnan Bilen and Cemil Uğur and Jinnews reporters Şehriban Abi and Nazan Sala were arrested following an early morning raid on the local offices of the news agency. Police also seized cameras and other journalistic equipment.
On 9 October, the court decided for the reporters’ continued arrest on terrorism charges, but the precise accusations against them remain unclear in the absence of an indictment. A summary of the reasons for arrest indicates that they are alleged to have reported incidents or conducted interviews concerning incidents against the state in favour of the Kurdish Workers’ Party/Kurdistan Communities Union (PKK/KCK). It is also alleged that they have received and acted in line with instructions from KCK to create propaganda and incite the public. The arrest summary also states that the press cards they used are not valid as they were not issued by the Presidency and that they are not considered journalists. It is not known when the next hearing in the case will be held.
Website blocked 22 times
Between 13 and 30 September, MA published a series of articles concerning the allegations that Şiban and Turgut were dropped from a helicopter. On 30 September, the 2nd Criminal Judgeship of the Peace in Gaziantep issued a decision (No. 2020/5419) to ban MA’s website. The decision does not indicate which articles or photos were the reason for the ban or which laws were violated and no relevant information was shared with the news agency or its legal counsel. They found out about the ban when they noticed that the Information Technologies and Communication Authority (BTK) had blocked access to their website. On 9 October, the 3rd Criminal Judgeship of the Peace rejected the agency’s appeal, leaving the Constitutional Court as the only remaining avenue for judicial redress. Although MA was established as a news agency only three years ago, to date its website has been blocked 22 times. It continues to operate from alternative domains. ECPMF said they consider the blocking of MA’s website on unclear grounds or legal bases to be highly problematic, adding; “Restricting access to internet content is a clear interference with the right to freedom of expression and must meet the criteria of legality, legitimacy and proportionality.”
Furthermore, on 1 October the Van Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office imposed a confidentiality order on the investigation file of the allegations concerning Şiban and Turgut and a ban on all news related to the topic. On the same day, MA reported being prevented by the police from reporting on a press conference about the case by a delegation of politicians. In this context, we recall that arbitrary restrictions on reporting on matters in the public interest violate the rights to expression and information.
The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom said: “The arrest and detention of journalists and media workers based on their reporting on a matter that is so evidently of public interest violate not only the rights to liberty and freedom of expression of the reporters themselves and also the right to information of the general public. Accordingly, ECPMF calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Adnan Bilen, Cemil Uğur, Şehriban Abi and Nazan Sala. The authorities’ assertion that they are not journalists because they do not have a press card issued by the Presidency is not valid. We recall that holding a press card or official authorisation is not compulsory for the exercise of the profession of journalism. We also demand that all journalistic materials and equipment are returned to the journalists and the authorities commit to deleting all copies of data they have extracted from these devices.”