A Kurdish militant stands near a barricade settled to block a road in town of Cizre in Sirnak Province, near the border with Syria, on Aug. 28. The fighting in Cizre killed three people and wounded seven.

Turkey tightens grip on journalists with harsh terrorism charges

Turkey charged two British journalists with aiding a terrorist group Tuesday, underscoring its deep sensitivity about reporting on rising violence between security forces and militant Kurds.

A Turkish court has charged two British journalists and a Turkey-based colleague with “working on behalf of a terrorist organization” as they reported on escalating violence between Kurdish militants and Turkish security forces. 

Jake Hanrahan, Philip Pendlebury, and a local journalist working with them in Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, were detained last Thursday, with the severity of the charges provoking an outcry from human rights groups who have for years charted an erosion of press freedom in Turkey.

Called “baseless and alarmingly false” by VICE News, the charges also show Turkey’s sensitivity about renewed conflict with ethnic Kurds that has surged in intensity since mid-summer.

Some Kurdish news websites and social media outlets have been muzzled. The Turkish Journalists Union denounced the Milliyet newspaper's firing last week of seven journalists considered critical of the government. And just a day after the Britons were charged, police raided Koza-Ipek Media, whose outlets published pictures from a key Turkish border with Syria that it said showed hardware being sent across to Islamic State militants, in the presence of border officials, for use as rocket launchers and armored vehicles. The media group is linked to an Erdogan nemesis, US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

The rising violence in Turkey effectively ends sensitive and once-secret peace talks between the PKK and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had been credited with a giving Kurds greater cultural rights through a “Kurdish Opening” policy launched in 2009.

More than 75 members of the Turkish security forces have been killed, and 300 airstrikes have targeted strongholds of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. In some towns in southeast Turkey, armed Kurdish youths have set up barricades, conducted armed patrols in their neighborhoods, and clashed with police. The fighting is happening in parallel with Turkey’s recent decision to join the US-led coalition against the self-described Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.

The journalists’ arrest is “an attempt to intimidate and censor their coverage,” Kevin Sutcliffe, the head of VICE news programming in Europe, said in a statement. “We continue to work with all relevant authorities to expedite the safe release of our three colleagues and friends.”

A history of a heavy hand

Turkish prosecutors have a history of leveling heavy charges for alleged security offensives ever since the Turkey-PKK war began in the mid-1980s, leaving nearly 40,000 dead.

More recently, since the Syrian war began as an Arab Spring protest in early 2011, Turkey has been a primary conduit for foreign fighters and hardware for rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That policy has yielded ever-more-powerful jihadist factions inside Syria; insecurity and bombings along Turkey’s border; and 1.9 million registered refugees in Turkey alone – nearly half the exodus of 4 million from a war the UN says has claimed 240,000 lives.

That poisonous cocktail has led to the latest surge of fighting, which was sparked when a bomb attack claimed by IS killed 33 Kurdish activists in the town of Suruc, north of the Syria border, on July 20. In retaliation, the PKK – which blames Turkey for complicity in creating IS and supporting jihadists against ethnic Kurds – killed two Turkish policemen.

The spiral of violence comes as Turkey prepares for snap elections on Nov. 1, the second round in five months. The pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) won seats in parliament for the first time in an early June vote, garnering 13 percent of the national vote and depriving the AKP of the ability to form a government for the first time in 13 years.

Since mid-July, some 1,400 HDP members have been detained by Turkish police, which by one count is nearly seven times the number of IS or Al-Qaeda-linked suspects arrested in the same period.

"Erdogan and the AKP have lost the support of Turkey’s religious Kurds, prompting a political campaign to court the nationalist right,” says Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert with the Atlantic Council, in a recent analysis. “These voters reject compromise with Turkey’s Kurdish political movement and remain skeptical of Erdogan due to his previous support for the peace process. Thus, Erdogan has a political incentive to continue targeting the PKK to demonstrate his anti-Kurdish nationalist bona fides, despite rising casualty figures and violence in the southeast."

Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott 

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