Turkey's despotism goes deeper than the arrest of Vice journalists

Scores of local journalists have been arrested, including those critical of the president

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The Independent Online

As if cracking down on Kurds wasn’t bad enough, Turkey is now cracking down on journalists who report on this, too.  Days ago, two British journalists and their Iraqi fixer, working for Vice News, were arrested in Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, where they were filming clashes between the Kurdish PKK party and police. Charged with “engaging in terrorist activity”, they now face trial – a move condemned by Vice and human rights organisations alike.

Turkey, already a low ranker on the global press freedom index, has also recently arrested scores of other local journalists, including those critical of the increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyep Erdogan. On Tuesday, Koza-Ipek media was raided and six journalists were arrested, accused of “providing financial support to and disseminating propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. It’s all just further evidence – as if it were needed – that the deal struck between the US-led coalition against Isis and Turkey months ago has gone horribly, predictably wrong.

In July, Turkey agreed to join the fight against Islamic State – after resisting the move for years – and in exchange made its Incirlik airbase available to the coalition currently carrying out airstrikes against Isis. But, as was foretold by countless commentators, it turns out Turkey, a Nato member, is using this as a pretext to launch attacks against the Kurds – the only force effectively combating Isis on the ground. Keen to crush a potential Kurdish push for an autonomous state in the region, Turkey has so far launched 300 airstrikes against Kurdish PKK targets in Turkey and northern Iraq – while carrying out just one airstrike against Isis, the group it claims to be fighting. With 75 Turkish security forces killed, the country is now engaged in an old and deadly conflict with its Kurdish minority, breaking a fragile two-year ceasefire.

Meanwhile, Turkey has rounded up over 1,000 members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – which won enough of a share of the election vote in June to scupper the possibility of Mr Erdogan’s AKP party winning a majority. That’s why another round of voting is slated for November – and why, presumably, the president has turned against the Kurds – in a bid to shore up nationalist support and secure a win in these second elections.

All of which we are, it seems, tacitly supporting – and all for the sake of that Incirlik airbase. And really, why wouldn’t Turkey think it’s OK to arrest foreign as well as local journalists? After all, our other great ally, Egypt, under general-turned-president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, has been doing the same thing without consequence. Just last week, the Egyptian courts, in a retrial of the sham affair last year, sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to three years in prison for supposedly airing false reports and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood – now banned as a terrorist group in Egypt. Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed have already spent 400 days in prison – and there are dozens more Egyptian journalists incarcerated in Egypt, amid unprecedented threats and censorship.  On top of which, arbitrary and political arrests have put thousands of Egyptians in jail. It’s all part of Sisi’s increasingly repressive regime – but the Egyptian president has been brought back into the fold of trusted western allies, on a sort of twisted “devil-you-know” basis.

So here we are, still backing brutal dictators and repressive regimes in the Middle East – a decades-old, misery-inducing policy – even though it is disruptive and trashes any credibility the West might otherwise have in the region. It’s like we’re addicted to Middle Eastern dictators who promise “stability” and who warn darkly about the terror that would spread if they weren’t in charge – as though their own repressive and anti-democratic actions aren’t fuelling violence and extremism.

And when not backing brutal regimes, Western countries are trying to find ever-elusive “moderates” to work with on the ground. The latest instalment of this pointless exercise was brought to us by ex-CIA director David Petraeus, who thinks we should back al-Qaeda affiliates as “moderates” (no, really) in Syria and Iraq, in order to better fight Isis – a suggestion that would be laughable if it weren’t so disturbing.

Responding to the arrest of those Vice journalists US State Department spokesman Mark Toner urged Turkey to uphold “universal democratic values” and said that the Turkish government is “aware of our feelings about this”.  Not to minimise the sentiment, but it may take a bit more pressure and more action to persuade Turkey to change course.

Twitter: @rachshabi