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Turkey among 26 countries behind acts of transnational repression against journalists: report

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A recent report by Freedom House identifies Turkey as one of 26 countries engaging in transnational repression targeting journalists since 2014.

As increasing attacks on independent media globally are forcing journalists to flee their home countries, the report, titled “A Light That Cannot Be Extinguished: Exiled Journalism and Transnational Repression,” details how Turkey, among countries such as Belarus, Cambodia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia, have targeted journalists abroad with transnational repression, putting their safety and work in serious peril.

“Transnational repression against journalists includes assault, detention, kidnapping, and unlawful deportation, as well as serious limitations on freedom of movement resulting from these threats. It also entails the intimidation of journalists’ family members, digital harassment, smear campaigns, doxing, and other attempts to prevent truthful reporting,” the report says.

Between 2014 and 2023, Freedom House recorded 112 incidents of physical transnational repression against journalists perpetrated by 26 governments. This data only captures a fraction of the phenomenon, Freedom House says, as many incidents go unreported or are extremely difficult to verify.

“These attacks have a devastating impact on journalists’ well-being, as well as their ability to deliver independent reporting. Exiled reporters struggle to maintain the contacts they need to cover stories. They face death threats, online harassment, and aggressive rhetoric from officials in origin countries. Often in precarious economic situations, they must also shoulder high monetary costs to overcome censorship, protect their digital and physical security, and navigate difficult immigration bureaucracies,” it adds.

The report describes the experiences of the Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman.

Zaman has not returned to Turkey since 2020. In 2019 the Turkish authorities initiated several criminal proceedings based on her work as a journalist, including interviews with Turkish opposition leaders and Syrian Kurdish leaders. She has been repeatedly attacked online, which she refers to as “cyber lynchings” In 2016 she was threatened by Turkish security officials when she attended a speech by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. More recently, her work as a reporter in Iraq and Syria has been interrupted by threats of Turkish drone strikes posted on social media, and the police have installed a panic button at her home in London.

She describes how her professional life was severely affected by targeted smear campaigns and how her sources distanced themselves from her for fear of repercussions as she was labeled an enemy of the state, a traitor or an extremist. This not only affected her professional relationships but also put a heavy strain on her private life. Another Turkish journalist working in the United States who wished to remain anonymous reported similar experiences with smear campaigns that led to tensions with his family in Turkey. Over time, these ongoing attacks had such an impact that the anonymous journalist tried to remain “invisible” to avoid further trouble.

Transnational repression has a profound and cumulative impact on journalists’ mental health and their ability to report on important issues. Many journalists have spoken about how relentless pressure, threats and online abuse, including harassment of their families, have demoralized them. This has led some to withdraw from the public eye because they fear the consequences of their reporting for themselves and their colleagues. For example, the same anonymous Turkish journalist was unable to report openly on the May parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey due to ongoing criminal proceedings and concerns for the safety of his colleagues.

The risks associated with transnational repression are so great that they discourage potential journalists, especially those who could provide critical insights into their countries of origin, from pursuing a career in journalism.

A Turkish journalist interviewed by Freedom House experienced the closure of US bank accounts, likely due to baseless terrorism accusations from the Turkish government.

Despite these challenges, journalists like Zaman persist in their efforts to report on essential matters of governance and power.

“I feel that my role now is to write the stories that people who are in [Turkey] cannot write, cannot possibly write. And they should not be left unwritten,” the report quotes Zaman as saying.

The report advocates for international cooperation to support journalists threatened by transnational repression tactics, including the abuse of Interpol mechanisms.

“Even in democracies, exiled journalists, like others targeted with transnational repression, can be detained via the abuse of Interpol mechanisms, like notices and diffusions, and through extradition requests and other legal cooperation agreements,” the report says.

According to the Freedom House report, exiled journalists face both digital and physical threats, which are exacerbated by insufficient support from authorities, civil society and technology companies.

Freedom House notes that these journalists need to develop their own security strategies. These include strict digital measures such as using separate devices for personal and professional use and attending security training. However, the report points out that these measures are resource-intensive and unfairly place the burden on journalists. The effectiveness of digital platforms in combating state-directed cyber-harassment is limited, Freedom House points out, particularly given the increasing difficulties in reporting and blocking abuse on platforms such as X, formerly known as Twitter, following the Elon Musk takeover.

In terms of physical security, the report notes that journalists are taking measures such as concealing their whereabouts and exercising extreme caution when traveling. Freedom House says that support from law enforcement in host countries varies: While some measures are taken, action against digital harassment is often lacking.

Diplomatic efforts to stand up for journalists and their families are inconsistently effective, the report observes.

Freedom House underscores the role of media organizations and civil society in providing support and advice and stresses the need for a more comprehensive approach to combating transnational repression. In conclusion, Freedom House recommends that governments, civil society and technology companies improve their strategies and support systems to combat the challenges faced by journalists in exile.

A report by the Orion Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, identifies Turkey as a significant actor in transnational repression, as both a perpetrator and a destination.

Turkey is noted in the report for abducting more than 40 individuals since a coup attempt in 2016, often targeting members of Gülen movement, a faith-based group outlawed by Ankara, as well as Kurdish and leftist activists.

The report highlights Turkey’s extensive spying activities, particularly in Germany, involving surveillance requests and a smartphone app for its diaspora to report individuals.

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