Kurdish journalism in Turkey under continued judicial pressure

Melike Aydın, JinNews reporter.
Melike Aydın, JinNews reporter. Author: Lara Villalón
The Turkish government has passed a new law that punishes “disinformation” in media and social networks with up to 3 years in prison. The first person to be arrested was a Kurdish journalist. The Erdoğan government’s attacks on press freedom affect all reporters in Turkey. “But Kurds are more affected because in our region more red lines exist.” Two Kurdish journalists speak to Nationalia.

Melike Aydın has been a reporter for years at JinNews, a feminist media outlet that covers social stories about Kurdish women in Turkey. She was arrested in 2019, accused of being a member of a terror organisation, over an interview she conducted with activists on hunger strike. After searching her home, the prosecution provided a book on Kurdish political feminism and the testimony of two anonymous witnesses as criminal evidence. Aydın was accused of being a member of the Kurdish guerrilla Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and faced up to 7 years in prison. She spent two months in prison pending trial. The trial itself lasted more than a year, and she was acquitted of all charges.

“My case is not unique: many colleagues are in the same situation as me. You are put on trial for something you wrote years ago and suddenly they think it is a criminal act. It’s a very arbitrary prosecution, in many cases based on anonymous witnesses,” explains Aydın. “They interpret the law in a way that anything can be terrorism, from a tweet to a report with an interview,” she adds.

Five years ago, Turkey was listed in several international reports as one of the countries with the most journalists in prison, with more than one hundred behind bars. Today, it no longer tops those lists because the number of imprisoned journalists has decreased, but, at the same time, institutional pressure has continued to increase. According to a report by the Independent Journalism Platform P24, an average of 70 court cases are brought against journalists every month. Most of the charges are for “terrorism,” “propaganda of a terrorist organisation,” “aiding a terrorist organisation,” “insulting the president,” or “insulting a state official.”

“This situation affects all journalists living in Turkey, but we Kurds are more affected because there are more red lines in our region,” explains Dicle Mütfüoğlu, co-president of the Kurdish journalists’ association Dicle Firat and reporter at the Mezopotamya news agency (MA). “We deal with issues that happen to Kurds in this region; if a person is prosecuted for terrorism, reporting it is interpreted as terrorist propaganda,” she adds. Müftüoğlu was sentenced to five months in prison for “helping a criminal”: saving a fellow journalist who was being tried for terrorist propaganda from a case of hypothermia. Although a court has acquitted her colleague, she has been convicted, in a case that several journalists’ associations interpret as an attack on Müftüoğlu for her profession.

Dicle Mütfüoğlu.

The court cases are endless. Just look at the daily tally of the MLSA organisation, which provides legal advice to journalists. Recently, Ferhat Çeli and Idris Yayla have gone to court for identifying members of the police anti-terrorist unit in their reports. Zafer Arapkirli, for allegedly insulting a state official. Ismail Çoban was tried for alleged terrorist propaganda for his publications in a Kurdish newspaper that was closed by presidential decree. Sinan Aygül was put on trial under a new disinformation law for publishing an investigation into the sexual assault of a minor. “This situation affects us, not only because many of those arrested are Kurdish journalists, but also because of what it means for a media company to constantly have to do without journalists. Our media are already in a precarious situation. We receive no state subsidies and very little advertising,” explains Müftüoğlu.

During the first terms of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in power since 2002 as prime minister and currently as president, there was an explosion of media and cultural offerings in Kurdish. This growth coincided with the birth of left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). However, after the 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish government, under a state of emergency, shut down dozens of Kurdish media outlets and associations for alleged PKK links.

According to the latest data from the Turkish Statistical Institute (Türkstat), there are 2,582 newspapers and 2,164 magazines in print in Turkey. Only one Kurdish-language weekly newspaper remains, Xwebûn. Turkish state news agency AA has a Kurdish version, while there are two private initiatives in Kurdish: the Mezopotamya and JinNews news agencies. These two do not function well because their web editions are constantly being shut down by the authorities. Government opposition media such as Bianet or Gazete Duvar also have Kurdish editions.

Newspapers in Turkish. / Photo: Lara Villalón.

The situation in the audiovisual sector is not much better. Of the 552 licensed television channels in Turkey, only one broadcasts news in Kurdish, the Turkish state channel TRT Kurdî. There are also two private initiatives: children's channel Zarok TV and Diyarbakir-based Amed TV.

“The few media outlets that exist are constantly being closed down. For example, our agency has had many names. First, it was called Jinha and was shut down by the state; then Sujin, which continued for about a year; when it was shut down, we opened JinNews,” explains Aydın. “At the moment the website is holding on, but our director is in prison. If they close the agency, we will create another one, because we already have the structure. We offer very specific stories, which affect Kurdish women,” she adds.

Aydın describes how, after facing so many arrests, the Kurdish media are prepared to continue working despite the casualties. If there is an arrest in a province, the media automatically sends another journalist to cover the area, so that they can continue to cover the news. Since last October, some fifteen journalists from the Mezopotamya agency and JinNews have been arrested and are still in prison.

Aydın adds that the arrests are more of a financial blow for reporters than the media because the police often confiscate their work material and do not return it. “The police searched a colleague’s home and seized her cameras, not just memory cards. She has not been able to get them back despite filing a complaint. She is now working with temporary material: this also affects our profession,” Aydin explains.

The JinNews reporter is optimistic despite the judicial pressure but regrets that, after being in prison, she notes many sources refuse to make statements to her for fear of being affected by the judicial pressure. “Many people don’t want to talk. They think that if they talk to me, then something will happen to them. I think the authorities put pressure on people through us,” she laments.

New disinformation law

Last December, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government passed a new “disinformation law” that imposes prison sentences of up to 3 years for misinforming or publishing false news in news outlets and social media. The amendment does not set parameters for judging information and leaves the door open to the “criminalisation of journalism and comprehensive censorship of online information,” according to a coalition of 22 international press freedom organisations.

“It criminalizes what the authorities call ‘disinformation’ without defining what it really means,” Emre Kizilkaya, head of the Turkish branch of the International Press Institute (IPI), one of the organisations that condemned the new law, told a press conference. “A judge will decide how to define disinformation. This gives arbitrary powers to the government to criticize journalism.”

A dozen journalists have been arrested under the new disinformation law in a month. The first case is that of Kurdish journalist Sinan Aygül, accused of “sharing unfounded news about child sexual abuse, a sensitive issue on the country’s agenda,” the indictment said. Aygül had written on his social networks about an alleged case of sexual abuse of a minor by a state official.

On the other hand, Dicle Müftüoğlu believes that this new law may severely affect Kurdish journalists, now that the parliamentary and presidential elections are approaching and now that the HDP party is facing a shutdown court process just before the polls. “The pressure is always there but it changes its form. Sometimes it is with long prison sentences, sometimes with constant arrests or media closures. We Turkish and Kurdish journalists suffer from this pressure, but we are determined to continue working to inform,” he concludes.

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