Journalists are either arrested or presented in front of a judge on a near-daily basis in Turkey, particularly in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, where they are often taken in for covering human rights abuses that would otherwise go unnoticed.
At the forefront of the struggle for independent news in the region is the Mesopotamia Agency (MA), which recently broke the story of two local men being detained by soldiers and thrown from a military helicopter in transit over the southeastern province of Van on Sept. 11.
One of the men, Servet Turgut, died, while the other, Osman Şiban, suffered life-changing injuries. The Turkish authorities have not denied the allegations, but the two MA journalists who first reported them have since been arrested.
“The website of our agency was closed. The governor’s office and the prosecutor’s office banned the news, then a police operation was carried out against our colleagues,” MA editor Sedat Yılmaz told Ahval in a podcast.
It is not the first time MA has been targeted by the authorities. Since opening three years ago, “almost all of our employees, including on the reporting and executive sides, have been sued and prosecuted in multiple cases”, Yılmaz said.
Yılmaz said he and his colleagues have not been granted recognition by the Presidential Directorate of Communications and face police interference on a daily basis.
“Our cameras are turned off, our images are deleted, and we are prevented from recording,” he said.
According to the editor, such persecution is not new. Since a conflict in the majority-Kurdish region escalated in the 1990s, 32 independent newspapers have been closed down and 78 employees killed, Yılmaz said.
Turkey ranks 154th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index in 2020 by Reporters Without Borders, an international press watchdog which called the country “more authoritarian than ever”. The International Observatory of Human Rights meanwhile has said that Turkey remains the worst jailer of journalists globally.
Members of the Turkish press media regularly face persecution for reporting on topics sensitive for the government or voicing opinions deemed unfavourable by state authorities. Journalists including Nurcan Baysal, Sertaç Kayar and Nedim Türfent have either been jailed or faced legal action for covering different issues in Turkey’s southeast.
“Countless journalists have become refugees abroad, dozens of them have been worn out in prison, and there are those left with prison sentences of a thousand years … (but) today’s environment is more oppressive than any other period,” Yılmaz said.
Until recently, new agencies were represented across Turkey’s southeast, but this is no longer the case as “there is an attitude that there should be no news in the region”, Yilmaz said.
“You have to address (human rights) issues by reporting the news. But by doing so you are disturbing someone; if you don’t want to disturb someone you shouldn’t report,” the MA editor said. “Therefore, almost all of (the news agencies) closed their offices.”
Yilmaz said Turkey was experiencing “a memory loss of the press”.
“This period will be recorded as dominated by great loss, ignorance, information pollution and disinformation,” he said.