French-Turkish reporter’s arrest in Belgium shows extent of Turkey's press crackdown
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The arrest last week of a French-Turkish journalist of Kurdish origins in Belgium has sparked condemnation from his colleagues, press freedom groups and has highlighted Turkey’s attempts to muzzle journalists in the EU.
On December 15, Maxime Azadi was in the Belgian town of Turnhout near the Dutch border when he was stopped by the police for a routine check. What followed though was not the standard sequence of events that a journalist in the EU can expect. But it could well become the new normal for reporters of Turkish descent trying to do their jobs as Turkey widens its crackdowns on the press outside its borders.
A dual French-Turkish national of Kurdish origins, Azadi is a well-known byline among Turkish expats in Europe. A news director at the Amsterdam-based Firat News Agency and a blogger on the respected French investigative journalism site Mediapart, Azadi has been covering Kurdish issues for over a decade.
“Azadi” – which means freedom in several languages, including Kurdish – is the Franco-Turkish journalist’s penname, one that Mediapart and the French press is sticking with for security reasons even though his identity is well known in Kurdish media circles.
Speaking to FRANCE 24, Azadi’s lawyer, Luc Walleyn, said his client was taken into custody by Belgian police on December 15 based on an Interpol red alert issued by Turkey.
Interpol red notices are issued for people wanted by national jurisdictions for prosecution or to serve a sentence based on an arrest warrant or court decision.
According to Walleyn, the alert demanding his client’s extradition was based on an act allegedly committed in Turkey a few years ago. A statement by the Council of Europe’s Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, based on a report submitted by the Brussels-based IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) said the Interpol alert was issued against Azadi over suspicions of “cooperating with a terrorist organisation”.
Details of the reasons behind Azadi’s Interpol alert, including the suspected terrorist organisation or the nature of the alleged act committed in Turkey, have not been issued. But the Firat News Agency has issued a statement noting that Turkey’s Interpol application “is totally related with the reports published by our agency”.
A day after his arrest, Azadi appeared before a Turnhout investigative judge, who placed him under a detention warrant. On Monday, Azadi’s lawyer filed a motion for his release. The case is set to be examined by the Judges’ Council Chamber of Turnhout on Friday.
Turkey’s crackdown on Kurdish media
Ever since the peace process between the Turkish government and the banned Kurdish militant group, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), collapsed in 2015, Ankara has conducted a crackdown against Kurdish activists, journalists and suspected PKK sympathisers.
Following the 2015 general elections, which saw the leftist, pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples' Democratic Party) cross the required 10 percent vote threshold to enter parliament for the first time, the dragnet has widened to include HDP officials and supporters.
Human rights groups say a state of emergency imposed after the July 14-15 coup attempt has enabled widespread civil rights violations, with tens of thousands of arrests of professionals – including judges, journalists, teachers and military officials – suspected of links with the Gulen movement, which Turkey accuses of masterminding the coup plot. The Pennsylvania-based group headed by exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen has denied the accusations.
Given the growing intolerance and stifling of opposition voices, Azadi’s reporting on a host of issues could well have triggered the Turkish government’s ire.
Over the past few months, Azadi’s Mediapart blog, Au-delà de l'information (Beyond the News), has focused on the Turkish government’s crackdown on Europe-based Kurdish TV stations broadcast on Eutelsat, the giant French-based satellite provider.
On October 3, Eutelsat cut the signals of Europe-based Kurdish language TV stations Newroz TV and Med Nuçe TV at the request of the RTUK, the Turkish authority regulating radio and television. The two channels are suspected of having PKK links, according to media reports.
But days later, a Paris court ordered Eutelsat to resume broadcasting the two channels since "the interruption of the transmission violates the legal provisions of the European Convention on Transfrontier Television". The court ruled that Eutelsat failed to prove the TV stations’ links to the PKK and ordered the French satellite provider to pay the TV stations a 10,000-euro fine for each day it does not comply with the order.
Cloak and dagger intrigues in Europe
In addition to the Eutelsat story, Azadi has also extensively covered the case of the shocking January 2013 murders of three activists at a Kurdish cultural centre in Paris. The victims included Sakine Cansiz, a prominent activist and one of the co-founders of the PKK.
The sole suspect in the murder case, Omer Güney, died on Saturday morning in a Paris hospital following a battle with a serious brain injury. His death, in effect, put an end to his trial, which was scheduled to start on January 23, 2017.
Responding to the news of Güney’s death, the families of the victims issued a statement expressing their "consternation to see that, once again, France is still not able to judge a political crime committed on French territory by foreign secret services".
French investigators had concluded that members of the Turkish secret service, MIT, were involved in the triple murder, according to media reports. But the investigations did not establish whether these agents acted "with the backing of their superiors” or "without the knowledge of the secret service in order to discredit or harm the peace process", a judicial source told the AFP.
Güney’s death came a day after the German federal prosecutor’s office revealed that a Turkish national suspected of spying on Ankara's behalf on the large Kurdish community in Germany had been arrested in the city of Hamburg.
The 31-year-old is suspected of having gathered, "on behalf of the Turkish secret service, information on the places of residence, personal data and political activity of Kurds living in Germany, as well as on Kurdish organisations," said the statement released by the prosecutor’s office.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long criticised Europe for not doing enough to crack down on the PKK and has accused Germany of harbouring “terrorists”.
Targeting Turkish journalists in the EU
The EU, on the other hand, has slammed Turkey’s violations of human rights following the July coup attempt as “unacceptable”.
This year, Turkey ousted China was the world’s largest jailer of journalists, according to a report published by the New York-based CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists). According to the group’s annual survey, there were 259 journalists in jail as of December 1, at least 81 of those were in Turkish prisons. Many human rights defenders say the actual figure could be as high as 140. More than 120 are facing prosecution while tens of thousands are without jobs following mass sackings and the closure of news media suspected of pro-Gulenist sympathies.
The impact of the press crackdowns is spreading to Europe, particularly countries such as Germany and France, which have large Turkish communities. Germany is home to a three-million strong Turkish community, while France has more than 400,000 people of Turkish origin, the second-largest Turkish community in the world.
Since the July coup attempt, a number of Turkish journalists working in Europe have had their passports cancelled, according to Ernest Sagaga, head of human rights and safety at the IFJ (International Federation of Journalists).
“Turkish authorities typically do not notify journalists of the passport cancellations,” said Sagaga. “They only discover it when they want to travel to the US, for example, or some other country. That’s when they learn that their passports have been cancelled.”
Sagaga has worked on five such cases since the July coup. The actual number of passport cancellations may be higher, he suggests, since some cases may not get referred to the IFJ, while other journalists in Europe may not be aware that their Turkish passports have been cancelled.
Families of journalists in Europe have also been targeted with spouses of reporters discovering their Turkish passports have been cancelled or cannot be renewed. “Guilt – should one be established – by association is contrary to the norms of due process,” said Sagaga, who fears that Turkey’s derogation of its obligations under international treaties is likely to continue if the state of emergency is extended next year.
Turkey’s press clampdown, said Sagaga, is “a major cause of concern for us. Media professionals are really in the sights of the Turkish government”.
Azadi’s arrest in Belgium has sparked howls of protest, with Mediapart journalists demanding the release of their colleague. “Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and, as such, must respect fundamental rights: freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” said a statement by the Paris-based news site.
The IFJ has also expressed concern that Azadi’s arrest “poses a dangerous precedent and is likely to threaten the security of exiled Kurdish and Turkish journalists in Europe”.