Media Crackdown: Turkish Journalists Detained for Asking Questions about ISIS

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf petro-powerhouses encouraged a flow of cash to Sunni rebels in Syria for years. But …
AP Photo/Militant Website, File

The Turkish government’s uneasy relationship with freedom of the press led to another bit of unpleasantness on Tuesday, when four journalists made the mistake of asking the governor of a border town if he was concerned that ISIS militants fleeing a defeat at Kurdish hands might cross into Turkey and cause trouble.

The reporters were treated to an angry harangue by officials, after which Governor Izettin Kucuk ordered three of them hauled off to the local police station in a lively simulation of what it would be like to get arrested for asking a perfectly good question of a public official.

Cumhuriyet newspaper said its reporter, Pinar Ogunc, was questioned on Tuesday at the border town of Akcakale, along with journalists working for the Turkish daily Evrensel and Germany’s Die Welt,” reports the Associated Press. “They were covering the Islamic State group’s loss of the Syrian town Tal Abyad to Kurdish forces and had asked Gov. Izettin Kucuk if ISIS militants who may have escaped across the border could pose a threat to Turkey.”

The Governor’s office “denied that he ordered the journalists arrested for asking questions,” claiming, instead, that they were subjected to an “identity check” due to “sensitivities” in the border region, according to the AP report.

The AP mentions another recent demonstration of what it calls “the continuing crackdown on media freedoms in Turkey”: a 21-month suspended sentence handed down to editor Bulent Kenes of the Today’s Zalman newspaper for daring to insult President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a tweet.

Kenes did not even mention Erdogan by name; he said an unnamed politician’s mother would be ashamed of his conduct. “It is so nice to see that Mr. Erdogan accepts that the definition and description in the tweeted message squarely fit him!” taunted Today’s Zalman in an editorial, before going on to note that in a country with a healthy respect for freedom of speech, even explicitly accusing the president of being a disappointment to his mommy would not bring a jail sentence.

The author of the editorial, Ihsan Yilmaz, notes that Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party has tried to discredit both himself and Bulent Kenes by accusing them of simultaneously working for the CIA, MI6, and the Mossad. If that is true, I have bad news for Yilmaz and Kenes: at least one-third of their personal information is now in the hands of Chinese hackers.

To sum up, in Turkey you can get a suspended sentence for talking about a politician’s mother, and you can be taken to the police station without being arrested for talking about ISIS. This gets the country’s security priorities backward because ISIS is clearly a much bigger threat than Erdogan’s mom.

The good news is that ISIS did, indeed, get its psychotic butt kicked by the Kurds in a battle for the Syrian city of Tal Abyad – perhaps the most significant defeat for the Islamic State in Syria to date. The bad news is that escaping militants went somewhere, and it’s not unreasonable to ask if some of them ended up in Turkey, or what they might do next.