Foreign reporters face tough times in Erdogan\'s Turkey

Sunday 24/04/2016
Declining press freedom

ISTANBUL (Turkey )- Hasnain Kazim, German news weekly Der Spiegel's resident correspondent in Turkey, last year applied to renew his Turkish press card -- usually a mere formality.

But when he had no reply, he knew something was wrong. Three months later, with no way to work without the card, he was forced to leave Turkey -- just one of a growing number of foreign journalists who believe the authorities are pushing them out.

Der Spiegel announced in March it had no choice but to withdraw the 41-year-old, who had been based in Turkey since 2013, and accused Ankara of violating press freedom.

In a telephone interview from his new posting in Vienna, Kazim said the practice of denying press cards to foreign reporters in Turkey was a "clear signal for journalists to watch what you write".

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been accused of increasingly authoritarian behaviour and upping attempts to muzzle opposition media since his 2014 election.

Trials for insulting Erdogan have multiplied, with nearly 2,000 such cases currently open. In the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, the country slipped two places to 151 out of 180.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) said last week it was "extremely worried about the ongoing negative trends in Turkey targeting foreign correspondents," slamming "unacceptable" behaviour from a country hoping to join the EU.

And Reporters Without Borders tweeted Sunday: "Soon it will be easier to count foreign journalists allowed in Turkey than those who are turned away".

Dutch journalist Ebru Umar, 45, was detained in Turkey for several hours Sunday after posting tweets deemed critical of Erdogan, and said Monday her Amsterdam apartment had been burgled.

Last week Russian journalist Tural Kerimov, Turkey bureau chief for the Sputnik news agency, was refused entry, and German reporter Volker Schwenck, Cairo correspondent for ARD Television, was detained, then deported.

Government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus referred to "security reasons" in both cases, without elaborating.

Sputnik's Turkish page was taken briefly offline, with Turkey's Telecomms Authority citing "administrative measures".

A senior government official denied policy change and said delays in giving visas or accreditation were rooted in a record number of applications.

"There is no blacklist. Obviously people who go through the legal channels literally never encounter any problems," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The prized yellow cards are essential for access to press conferences and official events, as well as sensitive areas such as refugee camps or border towns where Turkey is waging a fierce military campaign against the Kurdish rebel group the PKK.

The government also uses the cards to differentiate between "authorised" reporters and those it fears support Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan's foe, who is accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

After a diplomatic tussle between Ankara and Berlin, several German journalists previously refused cards were awarded them -- but not Kazim, who said he "was never given a reason officially".

"I was told on the phone I had to wait and my case was under consideration," but by mid-March he said he had to give up.

"I couldn't travel to different places where you need a press card. In a subtle way I was pushed from the country," he said.

It was not the first time.

In May 2014, he had temporarily left after receiving death threats over his coverage of the disaster at the Soma coal mine which killed more than 300 miners.

Kazim said he received over 10,000 threats via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter after an article quoted a miner insulting Erdogan.

On his return, he had hoped to cover Turkey for Der Spiegel until 2018. But he agreed with his editors it was now time to leave.

"The situation was already bad for domestic journalists and now things are also deteriorating for foreign journalists," he said.

David Lepeska, an American journalist who works for several media outlets, tweeted that he had been denied entry at Istanbul airport on Monday.

While the West has expressed dismay over perceived rights violations, criticisms have been largely muted, as Turkey is the EU's ally in a deal aimed at curbing the flow of migrants to Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to defend European values but has come under repeated fire for turning a blind eye to the freedom of speech issue in Turkey in a bid to ensure Ankara's cooperation in the migrant crisis.

The editor-in-chief of Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, Can Dundar, complained Friday in an open letter to Merkel ahead of her weekend visit to Turkey.

Dundar and his Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul face life behind bars for alleged espionage and revealing state secrets.

"There is a struggle between democrats and autocrats in Turkey," he wrote in the letter published by Der Spiegel. "Will you again pretend there is no repression here?"