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Reporters suffer 'censorship by the bullet' in Turkey

EIGHT JOURNALISTS have been killed in Turkey since February and dozens of others detained and tortured, raising fears that reporters are increasingly being singled out for attack. South-east Turkey is now the most dangerous place in the world, after the former Yugoslavia, for a local journalist to work in.

Human rights organisations, members of the new International Freedom of Expression Exchange (Ifex), have declared tomorrow a day of action for freedom of expression in Turkey, to mark what they call 'censorship by the bullet'. All but one of the journalists who died wrote for left-wing or pro-Kurdish periodicals that have been covering the guerrilla war in the south-east between the Turkish security forces and the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).

The reporters may have been partisan, but there is no suggestion that any of them were involved in violence.

The men were all shot, either by unidentified gunmen or by soldiers. No arrests have been made and there is little evidence that any serious investigation into the killings is being carried out. Last month the Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel, issued a statement saying that the assassinated reporters had not been 'real journalists' but only 'militants in the guise of journalists'.

Since February, according to reports by Article 19 and Helsinki Watch, there have also been other suspicious deaths of working journalists. Yekia Okur, the head of a private television channel, died in a car crash after receiving death threats.

Six weeks later, Bulent Ulku, the editor of a local newspaper, was found wounded and blindfolded after having been missing for five months. He died later in hospital.

In June a reporter called Mecit Akgun was discovered hanging from a telephone pole. The autopsy showed that he had been strangled 10 days earlier.

The past eight months have also seen the detention of at least 57 journalists for varying lengths of time, many of whom emerged from custody saying that they had been tortured. Police have raided newspaper offices and confiscated books and magazines.

A number of writers are now being charged under the Anti-Terror Law, introduced in 1990 to replace the much-criticised articles of the Turkish penal code, which had long been used to imprison writers.

The Anti-Terror Law, however, is proving both vague and savage: 'terrorism' is defined so broadly that no act of violence is needed for a conviction. Other reforms, promised by the coalition government in November, have simply failed to materialise.

The killing and harassment of so many journalists is not an isolated phenomenon. The conflict between Kurds and the Turkish government has grown increasingly bitter, with the PKK attacks causing both military and civilian deaths, while the Turkish security forces - a confused array of police, soldiers, 'special' troops and anti-terrorist commandos - step up their campaign of terror in the south-east.

Any Kurd suspected of sympathising with the PKK's aims is likely to be arrested. Despite the government's pledge to end torture, deaths during detention are reported regularly.

On being questioned about the death of 11 detainees in six months, the security forces stated recently that at least four of the prisoners had committed suicide. Three of these 'suicides' turned out to be children, one of them a 16-year-old schoolgirl who was said to have found a gun under the bed of her cell.