Vice reporters join dozens of journalists detained in Turkey

A boy holds a sign reading in Turkish "The palace wants war, people want peace" during a peace gathering in Istanbul on Aug. 9, 2015. Nearly 400 members of the outlawed PKK had been killed and hundreds injured in two weeks of Turkish airstrikes on positions in northern Iraq.
Ozan Kose

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Rights groups are demanding the immediate release of two British journalists and their Iraqi translator, who were detained on terrorism charges in Turkey last week. 

The reporters for US-based Vice News were charged with “engaging in terror activity” on behalf of the Islamic State, the court in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir said Monday. Their driver, who had been detained with them last week, was released. 

Vice named the journalists as Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury. Their translator Mohammed Rasool was also charged with terrorism.

The reporters, who deny the accusations, were arrested last Thursday while covering ongoing clashes between Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish army.

“Today the Turkish government has leveled baseless and alarmingly false charges of ‘working on behalf of a terrorist organization’ against three Vice News reporters in an attempt to intimidate and censor their coverage,” said Kevin Sutcliffe, Vice’s head of news programming in Europe. 

“Never thought I’d be in a position to ‘condemn’ a government, but with Turkey accusing Vice News reporters of terrorism I have little choice,” tweeted the outlet’s Editor-in-Chief Jason Mojica. 

A two-year-old ceasefire between the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state collapsed in July after PKK-affiliated gunmen shot dead two police officers. Ankara began bombing the guerrillas’ bases in Turkey and Iraq in retaliation, while simultaneously launching airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Syria. After failing to form a coalition government, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is hoping to regain its parliamentary majority in snap elections this November. But renewed violence and a downturn in Turkey’s once-booming economy threaten that victory.

The Vice reporters were initially accused of filming without permission, but were later interrogated about links to IS and the PKK, their lawyer told the BBC.  

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Amnesty International and press freedom groups such as PEN International and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have also condemned the arrests. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said it was concerned about the journalists’ safety. 

Amnesty’s Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner called the charges “unsubstantiated, outrageous and bizarre,” saying: “This is yet another example of the Turkish authorities suppressing the reporting of stories that are embarrassing them.” 

The case adds to increasing concern over deteriorating press freedom in Turkey. In 2012 and 2013, the country was the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. Although the numbers have fallen since then, dozens of Turkish journalists remain behind bars. 

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to carry out journalistic duties in Turkey.”

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to carry out journalistic duties in Turkey,” said PEN Turkey’s president Zeynep Oral, adding: “We ask for justice and the immediate release of journalists doing their jobs.” 

Journalists critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party frequently face prosecution or lose their jobs. The daily Milliyet last week fired seven of its reporters. Earlier this year, Diyarbakir-based Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink was prosecuted for “terrorist propaganda.” She was acquitted pending an appeal. 

CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia coordinator Nina Ognianova said that Turkish authorities are getting in the way of the public's right to know.“The renewed clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish separatists in the volatile southeast are of public interest to both domestic and international audiences. Authorities ought to protect, not gag journalists on the job.”