Turkey has expelled three German journalists, igniting fresh concern over deteriorating press freedom in a country with a history of silencing opposition voices. Two of the journalists left the country on Sunday 10 March, while the third is already in Germany. The reporters were given 10 days to leave the country and, according to the BBC, it is the first time Turkey has formally rejected the accreditation of foreign journalists.
“This is not acceptable to us,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said of the journalists being stripped of their credentials. “It has nothing to do with our understanding of press freedom,” he told broadcaster ARD.
The three journalists are Thomas Seibert, a reporter at the Tagesspiegel, Jörg Brase, ZDF bureau chief and Halil Gülbeyaz, a NDR TV journalist. They were told by the relevant authorities in Ankara about a week ago that their applications for new press cards had not been approved.
Currently, about a dozen German correspondents and a number of other international journalists are still waiting for their new annual press accreditation more than two months after their old documents expired. Press cards are considered work permits and the basis for issuing residence permits. Media rights activists have criticised the denials and delays of the accreditation as a violation of the freedom of the press.
“We think it’s a strategy to increase the pressure on foreign media. After the government managed to more or less silence the national media, now they’re going after the international media,” Mr Brase told BBC.
Over a hundred media organizations were shut down by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in the aftermath of the coup attempt, and in April 2018, 13 journalists working for an opposition newspaper called Cumhuriyet were sentenced to prison on terrorism charges.
Turkey remains the world’s worst jailer of journalists, with at least 68 people behind bars in connection with their work as of the end of 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The European Federation of Journalists has 162 journalists on its list and the Media and Law Studies Association has 155 names on a list published in October 2018.
“You have to emphasise that what’s happening to us is the lap of luxury compared to what happens to our Turkish colleagues,” Mr Siebert said before leaving Turkey. “More than 130 of them are sitting in prison for what they wrote or posted. Jörg and I, we’ll be sitting in a plane.”
Both sides are eager to avoid a severe deterioration in ties with Turkey’s economy in crisis and Germany, home to 3 million people of Turkish origin, reliant on Turkey to help contain a Syrian migrant crisis beyond Europe’s borders.
The relationship between Berlin and Ankara have been strained following the failed 2016 coup and the arrest by Turkish authorities of tens of thousands of people, including Germans.
In February last year, a Turkish court freed German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel pending trial after indicting him for alleged security offences – a move that helped ease tensions between the two NATO allies for a period. Yücel became a target of the Turkish government through his critical reporting on sensitive topics, such as the Kurdish issue, the Syrian war and hacked documents.
After his arrest in 2017, Yücel was held without a formal indictment being filed until this February. He was released after a year in prison, 10 months of which were spent in solitary confinement.
However, the German government tightened its travel advice for Turkey this weekend, referring to possible “further action against representatives of the German media and civil society institutions,” according to DW.
Foreign Minister Maas also told the Tagesspiegel: “Without a critical press there is no free democracy. We will keep campaigning for journalists to be able to work without restrictions – in Turkey as elsewhere.”
IOHR has organised several conferences related to press freedom and has supporting the #FreeTurkey campaign: in May 2018, IOHR organised a conference in Sweden on World Press Freedom Day with a focus on the crackdown on media in Turkey and in February 2018, we organised a panel discussion at the Sorbonne University in Paris about the Cumhuriyet journalists.