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Turkey: Vice Journalists Arrested on Terror Charges Tied to PKK, Not ISIS

Two British journalists arrested in Turkey for covering the conflict between the national government and the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terror group may not have had any ties to the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/IS), reports indicate, but did have sources within the PKK.

The Turkish government announced Monday that Vice News reporter Jake Hanrahan and cameraman Philip Pendlebury, along with their translator, had been arrested on charges of “engaging in terror activity.” The Turkish court handling the case in Diyarbakir province has been noticeably vague on giving any details as to who the journalists were in contact with to get them in trouble with the law, though most headlines surfacing Monday indicated that the journalists were being accused of having ties to the Islamic State.

The area in which they were reporting–and what they were reporting–seems to indicate that their ties might have been to the PKK, not to ISIS. Deutsche Welle notes that Diyarbakir is in the heart of Kurdish Turkey, and “believed to be a stronghold” for the PKK. The newspaper’s report adds that the journalists were “believed to have been in close contact” with PKK members, as that would allow them to more freely operate in the region. Any evidence the journalists were working with the PKK would help discredit claims they had ties to the Islamic State, as the groups are enemies and routinely attack each other in Iraq and Syria. The PKK is both a Turkish and U.S.-designated terrorist group in its own right, however.

The Turkish courts have done little to illuminate the situation. “Although the suspects were not involved in the terrorist organization’s hierarchy, it was decided that they were arrested for helping the organization willingly,” the chief prosecutor in the case said in a statement, refusing to name any particular organization. The attorney representing the Vice News journalists, Ahmet Ay, told the court he was equally perplexed, as “it isn’t clear which terrorist organization his clients are accused of aiding.”

Diyarbakır Bar Association President Tahir Elçi has told reporters that the journalists stand accused of working with both ISIS and the Democratic Union Party of Kurdistan (PYD), whose troops–the People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ)–have been among the most successful militaries in the fight against ISIS. The PYD is tied to the PKK but not considered by the United States to be a terrorist organization.

Vice News itself initially reported the journalists had been arrested after being “accused of supporting the so-called Islamic State (IS).”

That the Turkish government appears to be accusing the journalists of working with both the PKK and ISIS is reflective of multiple theories of collusion circulating among the three warring factions. PKK leadership has long claimed the Turkish government has been working with the Islamic State, allowing them access to Syria through the Turkish border. The Islamic State has released a video claiming the Turkish government is working with the PKK to destroy ISIS. “There is no difference between PKK and Daesh,” said one Turkish official in August, using the derogatory name for the Islamist group.

The PKK has been documented to have saved thousands of Yazidi lives in Iraq from extermination by the Islamic State, and the Turkish government is currently undergoing an airstrike campaign with the United States against ISIS. There is no evidence of the PKK ever working with the Turkish government, and the terror group has, in fact, escalated its attacks recently on Turkish police.

Vice News has “condemned in the strongest possible terms” the arrests of their journalists and denied they had been collaborating with terrorists. The organization is joined by a chorus of human rights organizations, NGOs, the European Union, and the United States in voicing their concern for press freedoms in Turkey.

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