Rights groups have long been reporting Turkey’s ‘trajectory towards authoritarianism’. The story of a jailed Kurdish journalist highlights the plight of the two groups — minority ethnic Kurds and media workers — that have been hit hardest by this tendency.
Hayri Tunç, a Kurdish reporter from independent news website Jiyan, is facing years in jail for seven tweets, 11 Facebook posts and two YouTube videos.
Based on material in the posts, an Istanbul court charged placed him in February on pre-trial detention in Silivri prison on charges of ‘terrorism propaganda’, ‘abetting criminal acts’ and ‘glorifying criminal acts’.
Taking into consideration multiple counts, the charges arrayed could mean over 20 years in jail if he is convicted, although given Tunç has no prior criminal record, any sentence would likely be smaller.
Until recently, Tunç’s main area of work has been uncovering stories of exclusion and struggle in the slums of Istanbul where the Kurdish minority has resided for decades.
As a video-journalist he excels at documenting clashes between Leftist protesters and the Turkish police.
Videos from his own YouTube channel have reached thousands of viewers and have been featured in major outlets such as Russia's RT and France 24.
His personal Twitter feed doubles as an independent newswire for 13.6K followers, thanks to his reporting from the other side of the Kurdish conflict.
But since last summer, when a low intensity conflict between the Kurdish armed group PKK and the Turkish state escalated into all-out guerrilla warfare, the Turkish government imposed a blanket censorship over Kurdish media by banning over a hundred independent news websites, including Jiyan.
(Disclaimer: the author of this report is an editor for Jiyan).
Among the subjects of Turkey's numerous removal requests to Twitter were key Kurdish journalists, including Hayri Tunç.
Tunç’s account featured three times in such requests according to data reported by cyber rights activist and professor of law at Bilgi University in Istanbul Yaman Akdeniz: first in August, then in September, and once more in January.
Such persistence has helped Turkey become the top Twitter censor worldwide.
Facebook is less transparent in revealing government requests, but Tunç reported he lost access to his account several times, while Instagram removed his photos that documented clashes in Istanbul.
But when the government’s repeated censorship requests failed to silence Tunç, mainly because Twitter usually fails to comply with removal requests relating to journalistic content, police raided his home in October and detained him on grounds of ‘being a member of a terrorist organisation’ and ‘spreading terrorist propaganda’.
He was even accused of ‘polytheism’ during a police interrogation.
It is clear that Tunç is being punished for reporting on the conflict in real time, with tweets such as this one, from July 2015:
Amed Alipaşa'da YDG-H özgürleştirme hamlesi başlattığını açıkladı. pic.twitter.com/iVvgjKKJ36
— hayritunc (@hayriituncc) July 28, 2015
YDG-H [youth branch of PKK] stated that they have launched a move to liberate Alipaşa in Amed [Kurdish name for Diyarbakır, East of Turkey]
That particular tweet provided visual evidence of the coming urban warfare, just a month before a Turkish governor issued a curfew in the town.
In December, he documented in a YouTube video how such months-long curfews in the East had sparked clashes with the police (from 1:45) in the Kurdish neighbourhoods of Istanbul.
All these materials are included in the indictment bill, reviewed by this author, as evidence of ‘terrorism propaganda’ and ‘abetting and glorifying criminal acts’.
This is not the first time that a journalist reporting on PKK is being jailed in Turkey.
Last August, Vice News reporters Jake Hanrahan, Philip Pendlebury, and their colleague Mohammed Ismael Rasool were detained on similar ‘terrorism charges’; Hanrahan and Pendlebury were deported while Rasool was released on bail after spending more than four months in jail.
But Kurdish journalists in Turkey face these threats on a daily basis.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least seven Kurdish journalists were arrested in Turkey in the last three months and another died in a basement in Cizre, a Kurdish town under curfew, while covering efforts to help people wounded during the clashes.
Regarding Turkey’s prosecution of journalists on ‘terrorism charges’, CPJ wrote earlier that “broadly worded anti-terror and penal code statutes have allowed Turkish authorities to conflate the coverage of banned groups and investigation of sensitive topics with outright terrorism or other anti-state activity.”
After Tunç’s arrest, CPJ further warned that “Turkey has recently renewed its practice of imprisoning critical journalists in retaliation for their work.”
When the number of banned websites in Turkey surpassed 100,000 last October, internet freedom groups demanded Turkish government cease online censorship of independent news organizations and citizen journalists.
The case of Hayri Tunç reminds us how important independent journalists are for Turkey, how crucial it is that they spread news via social media, but also how easy it is for Turkey’s government to censor and jail them without serious reprieve from Ankara's Western partners.
The first hearing of Tunç's case will be held on March 11 in Istanbul.