Turkey Jails Leading Press Freedom Advocate on Terrorism Charges

ANKARA, Turkey (Bloomberg News/TNS) -

Turkey jailed one of its preeminent press freedom advocates, charging him and two others with propaganda for a terrorist organization after they joined a campaign in solidarity with reporters covering the nation’s Kurdish conflict.

Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, was one of the three people ordered arrested after appearing in an Istanbul court on Monday. Sebnem Korur Fincanci, head of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey TiHV, and Turkish intellectual Ahmet Nesin were also sent to prison on similar charges.

The three had served as honorary rotating editors-in-chief for Ozgur Gundem, a daily newspaper and news website whose coverage focuses on the conflict between the government and the autonomy-seeking Kurdish militia PKK. Turkish authorities have opened criminal investigations against 37 of 44 people who joined the campaign and served as “on-duty editor-in-chief” for Ozgur Gundem since last month, T24 news reported.

The arrests mark “an unbelievable low” for Turkey, Reporters Without Borders said in a tweet following the arrest. Turkey has slid toward the bottom of world press freedom rankings during the 14-year rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now president, and his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said last year that Turkey has one of the world’s worst records for jailing journalists, along with China and Egypt.

Turkey ranked 151 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index, sandwiched between Tajikistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Journalists in Turkey are frequently accused of insulting Erdogan, an offense that carries a jail sentence, or terrorist propaganda due to coverage of Kurdish issues.

The European Union is insisting that Turkey amend its broad anti-terrorism laws before Turkish citizens can be granted visa-free travel to the bloc’s Schengen zone. Erdogan has refused, saying doing so would jeopardize security as the nation faces intensifying terror threats from groups including the PKK and Islamic State. The impasse threatens to derail a deal between the EU and Turkey, a membership candidate, on stemming the flow of refugees from Syria via Turkey to Europe.

The latest arrests show “the depths to which Turkey’s authorities have sunk to silence any and all narratives that differ with the government’s,” Melody Patry, senior advocacy officer for the London-based Index on Censorship, said in an emailed statement. “Press freedom in Turkey has rapidly declined in the last six months,” the group said, citing 31 arrests or detentions this year, three journalists killed and attempts to kill two others.