Two British journalists and an Iraqi fixer working for Vice News were charged today with “engaging in terror activity" on behalf of ISIS by a court in southeastern Turkey last week. Jake Hanrahan, Philip Pendlebury, and the fixer were arrested last Thursday while filming clashes between Turkish security forces and members of the Kurdish militant group PKK in the city of Diyarbakir, part of the government’s renewed crackdown against the banned group. They were initially charged with filming without government accreditation, but then "accused of supporting the so-called Islamic State (IS)," according to a Vice statement. They have now been taken to jail and are awaiting trial.
There has been no evidence released so far of links between the journalists and ISIS, and Amnesty International dismissed the charges against them as “outrageous and bizarre,” calling the case "yet another example of the Turkish authorities suppressing the reporting of stories that are embarrassing to them."
International human rights groups have decried President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government for attacks on the press and free speech over the past few years. Turkey was the world’s worst jailer of journalists in 2012 and 2013, though it was overtaken in that horrible contest by China last year. Erdogan has pushed back hard against this criticism, claiming dubiously last year that "Nowhere in the world is the press freer than it is in Turkey.”
The state’s crackdowns on the media have generally focused on domestic rather than foreign reporters, but even before the Vice arrests, there had been unsettling signs that was changing. Erdogan has accused the international media of fomenting unrest in Turkey, particularly surrounding the Kurdish conflict, and in April, Dutch reporter Frederike Geerdink, the only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir, became the first foreign journalist to face trial in the country in more than a decade when she was accused of aiding the PKK. She was eventually acquitted, but the government can still appeal the case.
The dubious charges against the Vice reporters come just a couple of days after an Egyptian court unexpectedly sentenced three Al Jazeera reporters to three years in prison for having broadcast “false news” about the country. The case had attracted international attention, and the men were widely expected to be exonerated or let off with time served.
One additional way this trend is quite troubling: Egypt and Turkey both serve as home bases for many reporters covering not just those countries but the wider Middle East. Taken together, these cases are a disturbing sign that even the safe countries in the region aren’t so safe for foreign journalists anymore.
Update, Sept. 1, 2015: This post has been updated and the name of the Iraqi fixer has been removed for his safety at Vice's request.