Turkey's crackdown on foreign journalists raises concerns

Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 157th out of 180 countries in its 2018 press freedom index.
Sunday 17/03/2019
Joerg Brase, from ZDF (R), and Thomas Seibert, from 'Der Tagesspiegel', give a press conference at the ZDF studio before their departure from Turkey, March 10. (AFP)
Joerg Brase, from ZDF (R), and Thomas Seibert, from 'Der Tagesspiegel', give a press conference at the ZDF studio before their departure from Turkey, March 10. (AFP)

LONDON - Turkish officials, under fire for a crackdown on local media, were criticised for declining to renew media accreditation of three German journalists -- ZDF bureau chief Joerg Brase, NDR TV journalist Halil Gulbeyaz and Tagesspiegel newspaper reporter Thomas Seibert, who also writes for The Arab Weekly, although Brase's accreditation was later approved.

Turkey’s decision not to renew the accreditation of the three journalists was seen as an attempt to influence how foreign media reports on the Mediterranean country.

The issue appears to have strained diplomatic ties between Ankara and Berlin and increased fears about Turkey’s media crackdown.

“Without a critical press there is no free democracy,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Tagesspiegel. "We will keep campaigning for journalists to be able to work without restrictions, in Turkey as elsewhere.”

ZDF and Tagesspiegel said Turkey's press attache in Berlin had asked the media outlets to send new correspondents after Brase’s and Seibert’s accreditations were rejected, which both ruled out.

“We were told that the ZDF or our reporting had not been the reason (for the denial of the press pass). The actual reason has not been explained to us,” Brase said.

“They have succeeded in muffling national media in Turkey to a great extent. Now the same is apparently being tried with international media and we should not be intimidated by this,” he added.

Turkish officials reinstated Brase’s press accreditation a few days after its decision to deny it although it was not clear what had caused the U-turn or whether Gulbeyaz and Seibert could expect a similar decision. Most other Istanbul-based reporters for German media outlets received their press cards shortly after Brase’s credentials were granted.

“The press attache paid a visit to my editors as well,” Seibert said. “We will keep up our reporting on Turkey. I have been here for 22 years. I have been continuously accredited as a correspondent since 1997. Because of that, saying goodbye is not easy… but, as we said before, we will carry on, from wherever that may be.”

Turkey received severe criticism for its treatment of domestic journalists in recent years. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had described the country as “the worst jailer of journalists.” CPJ’s figures indicate that, as of 2018, at least 68 journalists were in jail in direct relation to their work and 25 journalists have been killed since 1992, including 16 “with impunity.”

Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 157th out of 180 countries in its 2018 press freedom index.

“The witch hunt waged by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government against its media critics has come to a head since an abortive coup in July 2016. A state of emergency has allowed the authorities to eliminate dozens of media outlets with the stroke of a pen, reducing pluralism to a handful of low-circulated and targeted publications,” the Reporters Without Borders profile on Turkey states.

Turkey’s crackdown on journalists had focused almost exclusively on domestic reporters and media outlets but the recent move targeting foreign journalists is raising fears in many international outlets.

Foreign journalists working in Turkey are required to have their press accreditation renewed yearly. Journalists working without press cards are barred from official events and risk arrest. Brase and Seibert left Turkey after receiving word that their press accreditation had not been renewed. Gulbeyaz was already out of the country. Following the reversal of its decision, Brase said he would return to Istanbul “soon.”

In late February, Turkish Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak said that Ankara renews journalists’ credentials periodically, like many other countries.

“Some have had their accreditation renewed. Some are here, comfortably and freely asking questions. The accreditation of others has not been renewed,” he said. “Every country’s press freedom functions according to its own rules.”

Since the decision, Germany’s Foreign Ministry updated its travel advice for Germans planning to visit Turkey, citing Ankara’s treatment of foreign journalists.

“It can’t be ruled out that the Turkish government will take further measures against representatives of German media as well as civil society organisations,” the ministry warned.