Last night I attended a emergency meeting of the foreign press club in Istanbul to discuss the verbal and physical attacks on foreign journalists during the last few weeks of protest. A motley crew of journalists – hard-bitten stringers, high-profile columnists, novice freelancers and veteran photojournalists – sat around discussing their experiences of harassment and intimidation in a strangely idyllic setting on a rooftop bar. We heard about press card confiscation and online targeting by Turkish MPs, as well as lone journalists being roughed up by police in the streets near Taksim. This was not mere anecdote swapping; we had come to decide on a strategy to protect ourselves. Andrew Gardner, a representative of Amnesty International, was there. Senior correspondents were there. Here was a collection of people in the best possible position to publicize their predicament, but it was not obvious how to go about it.
Journalists here are scared, and rightly so. Attacks on journalists of any status are obviously unacceptable, but when whole institutions such as the BBC, CNN and Reuters are being targeted, it becomes clear that the Turkish government has lost any interest they might have previously had in maintaining good relations with major foreign media, and that is a very sinister development. Without fearless, unbiased media coverage, any country is in deep trouble and Turkey needs to improve its freedom of speech record now, more than ever.
A couple of weeks ago, a Russian journalist, Arkady Babchenko, was beaten by police for filming empty police cars. He had to be hospitalized, but was immediately deported when he could walk again. Other journalists, most notably Selin Girit for the BBC, have been the target of hate campaigns on Twitter, instigated by senior politicians. Other journalists have had their houses mysteriously burgled, their computers smashed up. Aside from these specific attacks, we all agreed that there is currently a distinct atmosphere of intimidation which makes one think twice before publishing anything negative about the government. Erdogan talks with complete conviction of foreign media plots. Pro-government newspapers call foreign journalists liars and urge Turkish citizens not to trust them.
We came up with a plan – to write an open letter to Erdogan and other ministers, stating our fears and demanding an end to the threats and smear campaigns. The idea of a formal association was floated but rejected on the grounds that it would shackle us with bureaucratic demands and constant investigation by authorities. The open letter would be widely publicized in foreign papers and online. So far, so good – until one wag pointed out the obvious problem: “How do fifty writers write one letter?”