By Mahmut Bozarslan and Ezel Sahinkaya
DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY — Turkish police have detained 20 Kurdish journalists in an ongoing operation in the Kurdish-majority southeastern province of Diyarbakir.
At dawn Wednesday, Turkish police raided the homes and offices of several journalists working for the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya News Agency, the all-female Jin News website, a production company called Pel, and the Dicle Firat Journalists Association.
During the raids, Turkish police confiscated computers, phones, hard drives and other personal belongings.
Detained journalists were taken to Diyarbakir Police Station for further questioning. Their lawyers were not provided with information about the investigation as the operation was ongoing.
Speaking on background, a Diyarbakir Police official told VOA that the operation was organized against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK's) “press committee structure.”
The official said that some Diyarbakir-based production companies create content for Belgium-based Sterk TV, which is affiliated with the PKK, and the U.K.-based Medya Haber TV.
Sterk did not immediately respond to VOA’s email requests for commentary.
“Diyarbakir Police examined the 82-hour long content of 102 programs from Sterk TV and Medya Haber TV channels,” said the police official, who accused Sterk and Medya Haber broadcasters of “making separatist terrorist organization propaganda, programs in favor of the convicted ringleader of the terrorist organization, and efforts to legitimize the terrorist organization.”
Sterk and Medya Haber are banned in Turkey because the Turkish authorities deem their editorial stance as pro-PKK.
Responding to the detentions, Medya Haber denied the allegations, stating that the channel’s work meets universal journalistic standards of objectivity and fairness.
Turkey, the United States and European Union consider the PKK a terrorist organization.
Lack of transparency
Some press freedom advocates are calling for transparency in the investigation and criticize Turkish authorities for broadly using the term “terrorist propaganda” to crack down on journalists.
"As the RSF, we are astonished at the extensity of an investigation based on 'terrorist propaganda' targeting of so many media workers. Evidence must be disclosed as soon as possible by the law,” said Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.
“We are worried that people will be victimized for days and months without concrete evidence before the elections,” Onderoglu told VOA.
The next parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for June 2023, but the opposition parties are calling for snap elections, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is facing a court case that threatens to close the party over alleged links with the PKK. The HDP, as the third biggest party, has 56 members in the 600-seat Turkish parliament.
Possible military operations
Sedat Yilmaz, an editor for Mezopotamya News Agency, says the detentions should be viewed in light of the Turkish army’s ongoing cross-border operations in northern Iraq and a possible operation in northern Syria.
“In the Kurdistan region, [the ruling Justice and Development Party] AKP has pinned all its hopes on this war, but it cannot achieve the desired success here. It does not have a psychological advantage,” Yilmaz told VOA.
“The AKP cannot get a psychological advantage in the Turkish public opinion, and it cannot create fear, defeat, and hopelessness among the Kurds," he added. "So, someone must pay the price for this, and it is now the Kurdish journalists.”
Officials at the Turkish embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to VOA’s requests for commentary in time for publication.
Turkey has carried out military operations in northern Iraq, named Operation Claw Lock, since April.
President Erdogan has recently talked about a possible military operation against the People's Protection Units, or YPG, in northern Syria, targeting Tal Rifaat and Manbij.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization linked to the PKK. However, the YPG is part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against the Islamic State.
Tayip Temel, the HDP’s deputy in Van, thinks that the detentions are meant to silence Kurdish media before the military operations.
"The Kurdish media outlets are largely considered alternative media for the [majority-Kurdish] audience [in southern Turkey] to inform themselves about the cross-border operations and those living beyond the borders," Temel told VOA. "So, silencing them is part of this [police] operation.”
Beritan Canozer, a journalist for Jin News, believes the Turkish government is tacitly supporting the police operation as part of efforts to distract from a growing economic crisis in the country ahead of upcoming elections and the expected military operation in Syria.
“We think that this operation was carried out to prevent these issues and crises from being on the agenda and to prevent journalists from reporting them,” Canozer told VOA.
Among the detainees rounded up in Wednesday’s raids are Jin News manager Safiye Alagas and editor Gulsen Kocuk; Mezopotamya News Agency editors Aziz Oruc and Mehmet Ali Ertas; former Mezopotamya editor Omer Celik; freelance journalists Lezgin Akdeniz, Kadir Bayram, and Serdar Altan; and Mehmet Sahin, a columnist with the Kurdish-language weekly Xwebûn.
Turkey has a poor record for media rights, ranking 149 out of 180 countries on RSF's World Press Freedom Index, where No. 1 is the freest. In the report, RSF describes Turkey as a country in which “all possible means are used to undermine critics."