The International Press Institute (IPI) today condemned recent threats and cyber attacks against two Northern Cyprus newspapers following their reporting on a local businessman’s alleged links to drug trafficking and called on local authorities to ensure the safety of journalists.

Editors Pınar Barut of Özgür Gazete and Nuri Sılay of Gazedda Kıbrıs told IPI that they were targeted after covering allegations about Turkish-Cypriot businessman Halil Falyalı, which stem from an exiled Turkish mafia boss whose videos have riveted Turkey in recent weeks. Barut and Sılay said they received threats and phone calls, including from Falyalı himself, pressuring them to remove the stories.

“The recent threats against journalists in Northern Cyprus, which are aimed at silencing public interest news coverage, must be fully investigated”, IPI Turkey Programme Coordinator Renan Akyavas said. “IPI calls on the authorities in Northern Cyprus to protect journalists’ safety and ensure an environment in which journalists can report freely without fear or intimidation.”

Several allegations regarding Northern Cyprus have been raised by Turkish mafia boss Sedat Peker as part of a series of videos published in recent weeks. Peker’s claims first made waves when he alleged that the members of Turkish government and military officials were involved in the murder of Turkish-Cypriot journalist Kutlu Adalı in 1996. However, Peker also claimed that Turkish-Cypriot businessman Halil Falyalı, who reportedly owns hotels, casinos and media outlets in Northern Cyprus, was involved in drug trafficking along with Turkish officials. Two media outlets, Gazedda Kıbrıs and Özgür Gazete, which have reported on these allegations were targeted by cyber-attacks and their editors were called by Falyalı pressuring them to remove news articles for days.

Cyber attacks and threats to family members

On May 27, Pınar Barut, the editor-in-chief of Özgür Gazete, and the programme host of the newspaper’s daily live broadcast on Facebook, said in its morning news show that access to Özgür Gazete’s website had been blocked due to a cyber attack and she had received threats to her and her family’s security.

Barut told IPI that she was first called by an acquaintance who asked her removal of the news on Falyalı. Later on, Falyalı himself called to request the content’s removal.

“The mainstream media [in Northern Cyprus] had mostly reported on the allegations only on [murdered journalist Kutlu] Adalı. We were the only outlets that also reported on the drug trafficking allegations on Falyalı. I believe this is why we became targets out in the open”, Barut said. “After publishing the first piece on the Falyalı allegations, five or ten minutes later I was called by an acquaintance asking to remove the piece. Later on, I was told that Falyalı would also call me directly. When Falyalı called, instead of direct threats, he was using more request-type sentences. However, I told him he could use his right of reply, but he rejected it. When we did not remove articles, the cyber-attacks followed.”

Barut said that Falyalı is known for his close ties to the Northern Cypriot political leaders and Turkish government. He is also reported to have financed several media outlets in Northern Cyprus.

The harassment didn’t stop with Barut herself. “My family members received calls threatening to cut off their business if we don’t remove the news articles from Özgür Gazete”, she told IPI. Barut said the calls and cyber attacks on Özgür Gazete lasted about 15 days. She said she approached local authorities for protection but did not receive a positive answer. She said that she remains concerned about her safety due to what she perceived as the authorities’ lack of interest in these threats.

Acts of intimidation

IPI also talked to Gazedda Kıbrıs editor Nuri Sılay, who recently took over from a previous editor. Sılay said he had received calls from Falyalı with similar requests, which he saw as an act of intimidation aimed at stopping reporting on the issue.

Sılay said that Falyalı at first didn’t ask him to remove the content but said he had been wronged. “In the following calls, he told me he would file lawsuits on damages, asking if we are still sure or not about removing [the content] because we won’t be able to afford the compensation even if we pay for the rest of our lives.”

“He also made sure that he knew things about me and he said things that lead me to know he did enough research on me,” Sılay added.

Sılay also said that the cyber-attacks on Gazedda Kıbrıs news site followed later. The site was inundated with millions of requests that caused it to crash. “We had been targeted by cyber-attacks before but with this one, it was much clearer that it was organized.”

Previously, Asım Akansoy, an MP of the Republican Turks Party (CTP) in Northern Cyprus, also stated in a parliamentary speech that several outlets and journalists were being threatened for reporting on Sedat Peker’s allegations regarding Northern Cyprus and had been with requests to remove content. Akansoy called on Turkish-Cypriot journalists to report such threats to the authorities.