The International Press Institute (IPI) today urged Turkish authorities to initiate an immediate investigation into a string of recent physical attacks that have targeted five journalists in the last 20 days and bring the perpetrators to justice.
On May 10, journalist Yavuz Selim Demirağ, a regular contributor for Yeniçağ newspaper, was attacked outside his home in Ankara. The assailants beat the journalist with baseball bats as he was returning home after his evening television program on Türkiyem TV. Authorities detained six alleged perpetrators, who were then released 24 hours later, reportedly on the grounds that there was no perceived threat to the journalist’s life.
This attack was followed by another incident on May 15, in which investigative journalist İdris Özyol was reportedly attacked outside Yeni Yüzyıl newspaper’s building in Antalya, southwest Turkey. Özyol was hospitalized with injuries to his head and chest. The Progressive Union of Journalists issued a statement linking the attack on Özyol to public threats against journalists made by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Regional Chair Talu Bilgili.
IPI joined several other international press freedom groups in condemning the two attacks in a joint letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In an interview with IPI, Özyol explained the possible trigger behind the attack on him.
“It goes back to 10 days before the attack, when I openly criticized regional chair on my columns. He called me afterwards, threatening with ‘beating me well’. I didn’t think this would come to such a pass. It was around 6.30 pm when I left the newspaper, there were three men waiting in the corner. First, they hit me on the shoulder, then followed fists and kicks.”
Özyol told IPI that the three attackers later went back to the MHP town center across from the crime scene. “They did not even try to run or hide, walking directly into the party building. And we identified one of the assailants later. He is the driver of the MHP regional chair.”
Özyol also told IPI that he received get-well calls from MPs from Turkey’s ruling AKP party, who sought to dissociate themselves from the attack. “But I believe they are all behind it together. These attacks are organized attacks, and obviously overlooked by the state”, he said.
“I hope this would be the last attack.”
Attacks on journalists in Turkey, however, have continued at an alarming pace, with three more journalists targeted last week. On May 20, Ergin Çevik, chief editor of the local news website Güney Haberci in Antalya, was attacked by three assailants after he reported on corruption allegations in the municipality of Kundu district. The attackers first went to his office asking for his whereabouts, reportedly saying they were bringing ‘’greetings from Kundu”. Çevik said that the group found him in a restaurant later and asked “Are you the journalist Ergin?” before assaulting him.
On May 24, another local journalist and the founder of Egemen newspaper in Adana province, Hakan Denizli, was shot in the leg by an unknown gunman in the morning in front of his house. According to local reports, Denizli had previously been targeted and assaulted several times because of his work.
The most recent attack took place in Ankara, targeting Oda TV columnist and commentator Sabahattin Önkibar on May 25. Önkibar was stopped by two cars while he was on his way home and beaten up by a group of individuals.
Prior to the attack, Önkibar had reportedly commented on television on the mayoral re-election in Istanbul, saying that the ruling AKP-MHP coalition would try anything in order to win the election. He also revealed an insider note alleging that the coalition was preparing to fabricate documents against the opposition mayoral candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu.
Four suspects in the attack were taken into custody by police but released on bail on May 27. On May 28, the MHP filed a criminal complaint against Önkibar for “constantly insulting MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli whether in his columns or his speeches”.
In an interview, Önkibar told IPI that he had faced a similar attack two years ago after launching a new book about MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli. “The attackers believe that they are immune before the judiciary and that they will not be punished. And unfortunately, the highly polarized political climate supports this view.”
Önkibar also said that Bahçeli had targeted him before as well: “Devlet Bahçeli openly targeted a number of journalists before by advertising a ‘blacklist’ in newspapers. I was also on that list.”
IPI condemned the hate list last summer along with several prominent MEPs, urging Erdoğan to ensure the safety of journalists.
The recent attacks raise serious concerns over the safety of independent journalists and the threat to freedom of speech in the country, especially in the run-up to the upcoming mayoral elections in Istanbul on June 23.
İdris Özyol described these consecutive attacks as a “package”.
“These attacks were planned and encouraged attacks, or maybe even authorized by the political figures. They are clear signs of an attempt to intimidate and silence the independent media. The attackers might have received clear orders for ‘silencing dissident voices in their region’ including journalists.”
“As long as the attackers remain unpunished, I fear that the attacks will continue.”
“We are greatly concerned that the recent attacks on journalists in Turkey are a reflection of a political discourse that seeks to demonize dissenting voices”, IPI Director of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad said. “The pattern of the attacks clearly demonstrates that in the run-up to the upcoming elections in Istanbul, intimidation of the press has increased and there is growing intolerance towards independent journalists who are seeking to inform the public but who are seen as inconvenient by some sectors of the Turkish polity.”
“Journalists should be provided with a safe environment where they can do their job without fear and intimidation”, Prasad added.