Firsthand accounts document mistreatment of Turkish journalists
Testimony details allegations of excessive force against those covering Gezi Park demonstrations
VIENNA, Oct 25, 2013 – The International Press Institute (IPI) and its affiliate, the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), today reiterated their call for Turkish authorities to identify and hold accountable police officers and others responsible for the brutal treatment of journalists covering demonstrations that gripped the country this year.
“Numerous journalists reported that elements of the security forces targeted them with water cannons, tear gas canisters, batons and rubber bullets during the protests, which erupted in late May before dying down in July and then experienced a brief resurgence in September,” IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said. “Even more journalists said they were subjected to harassment, arbitrary detention and the forced deletion of photo and video recordings.
“Such flagrant violations of the rights of journalists are completely unacceptable. Turkish authorities must demonstrate their commitment to upholding fundamental human rights by identifying those responsible for these acts and holding them accountable.”
IPI and SEEMO made the demand as they released a report that sets forth firsthand accounts of journalists who were subjected to excessive force as they sought to cover the demonstrations and recommends steps authorities should take.
As part of the report, IPI and SEEMO collected and posted online images of journalists injured while covering the protests as well as the front pages of Turkish newspapers published at that time.
The text of the report appears below.
THE GEZI PARK PROTESTS AND JOURNALISM
Scores of journalists were injured, arrested or harassed while covering the Taksim Gezi Park protests, which started on May 27, 2013 following the brutal police treatment of demonstrators seeking to prevent the demolition of the park in central Istanbul.
The news website Bianet.org reported that at least 126 reporters, nine of whom were from international media outlets, were beaten, injured, obstructed or insulted by elements of security forces or civilians believed to be plainclothes police officers between May 28 and July 13.
The Photography Foundation in Turkey said police forcefully deleted images taken by scores of photographers in Istanbul and Turkey’s capital Ankara between May 31 and July 8. The country’s Human Rights Association (IHD) listed several incidents in which journalists said they were subjected to excessive force after having shown police officers an official, state-issued yellow press card.
National and international media published several images showing the bloodied faces and heads of at least 13 journalists, including Reuters photographer Osman Örsal and well-known journalist Ahmet Şık, who were injured by police on July 6.
Most of the injured journalists were hit by tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, batons or water cannons. Several of them – including Ismail Afacan, a correspondent for the daily Evrensel and for Hayat TV, and Mehmet Kacmaz of the Nar photo agency – described being hit near their eyes, creating health risks that potentially endangered their professional prospects. Onur Erdem, a correspondent from BirGün daily, told BBC Turkish that the police intentionally targeted journalists covering the protests on July 8. He said that police officers beat him with batons, insulted him and prevented him from going to a hospital.
Although the initial wave of demonstrations subsided in July, journalists were again the targets of violence after a new wave of protests erupted across the country in September. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), at least 12 journalists were injured or attacked by police in the space of two days in Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara.
On Oct. 2, Amnesty International issued a report finding that Turkish authorities committed human rights abuses “on a massive scale”. According to the report, police frequently fired directly at protesters and bystanders, in at least one case with live ammunition, and law enforcement officials sexually abused female protesters.
The International Press Institute (IPI) and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) interviewed several journalists who said they were subjected to police brutality during the protests. A sample of the testimony given by those journalists follows.
An editor, who worked for a major Turkish newspaper until a few months ago, said on condition of anonymity:
“On the night of September 11, I left the bar in Kadikoy where we had chatted with my friends. I was on my way home. There were police on the coast. I started to walk towards Moda district through the wharf. I smelled the tear gas. The amount was enough to make me cry. I turned towards the Bars Street. There was a barricade at the entrance. I was curious, so I entered the street. There was no problem. I walked to Bahariye Avenue. I felt like I should stop for a while. I called one of my friends. He was close, so I walked towards him. We met. In three or four minutes, the police started to intervene with a lot of tear gas. I ran with the crowd. After a while, near Moda Cinema, I turned left. It was a cul-de-sac. We were trapped with 20 to 25 people. Police quickly came and detained us all. Because of the tear gas that they were still using, I was thinking that I would die. They made us sit on the ground and tied our hands with plastic handcuffs from behind. I showed my yellow press card. A policeman took it, but his chief said: ‘He can explain it at the police station.’ They ordered us to walk to the police bus in Altiyol district. We walked through a unit of riot police. A lot of them swore at me. One of them looked at my blue trousers and asked: ‘Are you gay? Are you a faggot?’ Then, suddenly, one of them jumped on me and started to punch my face. After four or five punches, the policeman who had escorted me to the bus saved me from [the attacker’s] hands. After a few more steps, another policeman attacked, saying something ‘patriotic’ and punching me two or three times. I managed to hide my face well, so my face looks OK now, but my nose still aches and one of my lips is sore inside. Another policeman escorted us for the rest of the way. He asked questions, but swore at me when I replied (‘son of a bitch’, etc.) We were not abused in the bus. In the police station, everything was completely civil. The chief officer released me after learning that I was a journalist who was just walking near the protest. He even apologised. In short, I saw the difference between the riot police in the streets and the justice police in the stations.”
Accounts given on the record also indicated that the most serious human rights violations were committed in the street by officers from the riot police.
Journalist Eylem Düzyol, former chief of the economy department at daily Taraf:
“With my colleague Fulya, we arrived in Istanbul’s Pangalti district to document the Gezi Park protests on June 16. During the two hours we spent there, we were with other journalists, photographers and cameramen. After 5 p.m., police, supported by a riot [control] vehicle, intervened against protestors near Kurtulus Avenue with tear gas. We took refuge in an apartment building. Policemen followed us in and batoned the last person who entered the building. One of them turned to us and we told him that we’re journalists. He wanted to see our press cards. As we showed our cards, other policemen who had just entered the building started to hit us. With our press cards in our hands and despite the fact that we told them several times that we’re journalists, we were heavily beaten, first inside the building and then in front of the building, where they dragged us to. They forcefully removed my gas mask and goggles. Fulya’s gas mask became unusable and her helmet was removed. As they kept beating us, one policeman said: ‘Enough, they are from the press.’ As they paused for a while, we managed to walk away down Kurtulus Avenue. But there was a lot of tear gas and we were without our masks at that point. We couldn’t walk for a long time. We took refuge in another apartment for a while, waited for the gas to disperse and then left the scene.”
Photojournalist Yunus Dalgıç, from daily Milliyet:
“On July 6, I was covering the clashes on Mis Street in Taksim. A riot [control] vehicle (TOMA) was positioned at the entrance of the uphill street. Downhill, there were protestors. A man who sells Turkish flags, who would be known to all of the country soon, was sitting in front of the TOMA, resisting arrest. When I photographed the incident, a policeman approached me and asked me in a rude way what I was doing. When I told him that I’m a journalist and that this is my duty, he shouted: ‘Go and take photographs elsewhere.’ As I kept photographing, he came closer, but other journalists came between us and prevented him from attacking me. After a while, the TOMA started to move slowly. At that moment, the same policeman came and gave me a strong push, causing me to fall downhill because of the heavy equipment I carried in my backpack. The TOMA turned its wheels towards me and started to move faster. I was still on the ground and I tried to escape, falling towards the shops on the right side of the street. I dragged myself towards an ice cream cooler. The TOMA continued to follow me. It was about to hit the shops. I was moving and the TOMA was approaching me. I was stopping and the TOMA was braking for a while. I was so close to being crushed under it. Then, some of my colleagues came and helped me to stand up. The same policeman shot one of them with a rubber bullet, although the distance was merely one meter. He also broke the lens of my camera.”
Journalist Eyüp Serbest, a correspondent and editor with daily Hürriyet:
“I’ve been a crime reporter since 1997. In several instances of social unrest, I faced death. This is why it was not unusual for me to experience that kind of police treatment during the Gezi Park protests. Obstruction of the work of journalists, verbal abuse etc. were all familiar to me. But on June 12, the atmosphere was different. Like always, I went to Taksim early in the morning. Police had emptied the square. The governor was assuring that the police wouldn’t intervene in Gezi Park. Then, in the afternoon, the police suddenly got harsher. When some protestors started to pelt them with stones, the police used rubber bullets. Then protestors began throwing Molotov cocktails and steel pellets. Just before it got dark, I was between Gezi Park and the Ataturk Cultural Center. I found a spot where I could photograph both sides in the same shot. I was wearing a blue helmet. Two policemen started shooting rubber bullets. Protestors around were shouting at me to warn that the police would shoot me. I thought that they wouldn’t shoot me, as I was just a journalist who was doing his job. But they did. A rubber bullet hit my chest. I sat in front of a wall. A protestor ran to me and asked from where I got shot. I removed my gas mask. I heard that some people were shouting: ‘Doctor, doctor!’ In a few moments, somebody, presumably a doctor, came and examined me. There was a large purple spot on my chest. He told me, before leaving: ‘You’re OK, don’t stand up for a while. Be careful.’ I sat down for another 10 to 15 minutes. Clashes continued in front of me. My friends, who heard that I was shot, arrived soon and evacuated me from the park.”
Photojournalist Emrah Gürel, with Hürriyet Daily News:
“On May 28, around 50 activists prevented the authorities from removing trees from Gezi Park in Taksim. Then, different activist groups started a sentry-duty to protect the trees in turns. On May 31, at 5 a.m., the police tried to empty Gezi Park. As clashes began that morning, I was stuck between the protestors and the police. I was hit in my leg and my stomach by three stones. I couldn’t work for the rest of the day. During the protests, the police wouldn’t let me enter Istiklal Avenue [the most famous market street in Turkey] on several occasions, although I showed them my yellow press card. When I tried to photograph the police operation inside a building, I was subjected to harsh treatment. Two photojournalists with whom I work (Ugur Can from the Doğan News Agency and Ferhat Zubcevic from Aksam) were detained because they only had their company IDs and not the yellow press cards that the Prime Minister’s Office issues. On Sept. 10, the police were trying to detain some protestors. While photographing it, I was subjected to harsh treatment again alongside other journalists on the scene.”
Journalist Abdullah Ayasun, with Today’s Zaman:
“On June 16, the next day after the closure of Gezi Park, I was covering the protests and clashes in and around Taksim. At first, I was alongside the police forces. After a while, I switched to the side of protestors. I was sharing the latest news through social media. Police started to attack the protestors near the German Hospital from two directions simultaneously. The protestors who couldn’t run away were being handcuffed. A plainclothes officer saw me photographing this, asked me to surrender my phone, and then jumped down my throat and pushed me against the wall. While he was trying to grab my phone, I tussled with him for a while. Two more policemen came. One, who was from the riot police, twisted my arm and pushed it to my back. I shouted ‘Press!’, but they didn’t hear, probably because I was wearing a gas mask. My yellow press card was in my twisted hand. They forced me to lie down. The riot policeman pushed his knee on my back. My arm was still twisted. They pushed my head to the ground. Protestors were lying down in the same position around me. I managed to remove my gas mask and shouted: ‘Press!’ They let me show my press card. After a brief inspection, they released me. One policeman apologised to me and told that it was a mistake. I reported the incident to the police chief who was walking to the scene. He told me that in such chaos, such things happen. ‘Excuse us,’ he said.”
Journalist Alp Buğra Bahadır Gültekin, a correspondent with daily Radikal:
“On June 22, a march on Taksim Square was organised to leave carnations to commemorate the people who lost their lives in the Gezi Park protests. As a reporter of Radikal daily, I was on duty at Taksim Square on that evening. At about 8 p.m., the police intervention started and hundreds of police officers and a TOMA appeared at the top of the steps that led to Gezi Park. In a while, police started to use water cannon and tear gas to disperse protesters. I was recording videos and taking photos of all of the events that were taking place. When the intensity of the police intervention began to decrease and protesters started to scatter, I decided to give myself a break for some time in a cafe with my friends. At midnight, two friends of mine and I decided to go home and we left the cafe. So we started to walk on Istiklal Avenue where the clashes between police and protesters occurred. However, there was a small group of people who were standing on the Avenue, waiting and chanting against police. As we were passing by the protestors and going through Taksim Square, suddenly, a new intervention started and dozens of police officers appeared on the Avenue. The police used tear gas, so people who were on Istiklal Avenue started to run away from the tear gas cloud, including my friends and I. In a short time, dozens of people who were not able to breathe easily because of the tear gas became stacked up in an alley. Then suddenly, two dozen policemen entered the alley and started to beat up, to punch all of the people and to gas the street. I insistently said I was a member of the press after I was hit with a baton by a police officer, whose anger I could clearly define on his face. His answer in response was to hit me with the baton while swearing at me. After I fell down on the ground, almost all the policemen around hit or kicked me. I remember that one of the police officers kicked me in the face and in the head while I was on the ground. When the police stopped beating me, I got up and staggered to a nearby restaurant where I collapsed on the table. I was able to call friends who picked me up from there so I could get home. The next day I went to Bağcılar Medipol Hospital and got a medical report. I had nine or 10 different marks from being beaten ... I had a swollen eye, bruises on my hips and baton marks on my back. Later I went back to the street where the police beat me. I spoke to a shopkeeper and managed to get CCTV footage showing the police beating me and others. I made a criminal complaint against the police and, as far as I know, I gave all the evidence to the authorities. However, I am still waiting to hear back from them.
In an unrelated incident, on the night of Aug. 3, I was detained for an hour by police while at the scene of an event in Taksim. As I was recording a video of an argument between police officers and two teenagers, the police tried to prevent me from doing so and to take my camera. I resisted, so they wanted to take me to the police car. I insisted that I was a member of the press again and I told them this was an ‘arbitrary detention’. It didn’t work. Because there was a systemic reaction to reporters in that time period. Even though I showed my documents to solve the issue, they took my Turkish ID card and my company card. After a long conversation with the police officers, I was released without any criminal record. I have video recordings of both incidents.”
All of the testimony that IPI and SEEMO collected detailed allegations of serious misconduct by police officers. A number of journalists also relayed to IPI and SEEMO the following complaints:
- Despite the official nature of state-issued yellow press cards, many police officers appeared not to recognize what the card itself looks like;
- Many police officers did not accept company IDs issued by media outlets as proof that the holder was a journalist;
- Some police officers forced journalists to delete photographs in which those officers appeared. Other officers directed journalists to photograph only protestors;
- Police officers acted with particular harshness against journalists from foreign news agencies and from left-wing media outlets. Turkish reporters also said that police acted more harshly toward those who wore vests bearing the word “PRESS” in English;
- Police pushed journalists toward protestors on several occasions, creating a risky situation, especially for reporters with pro-government media outlets that had engaged in criticism of the protests;
- On several occasions, police confiscated gas masks owned by journalists;
- Incidents of sexual harassment by members of the security services were not only directed at protestors, but also at some journalists.
On Sept. 24, representatives of the Turkish Journalists’ Association (TGC) met with the General Directorate of Security (EGM), which oversees the national police. Journalists voiced their concerns at the meeting, while officials reportedly argued that the media did not respect their right to controvert and rebut.
IPI considers it to be a positive sign that the Ministry of Interior appointed two civil investigators to look into journalists’ complaints. In light of these complaints, as well as the underlying issues in the testimonies above, IPI calls on Turkish authorities to:
- Take immediate steps to stop the use of excessive force against journalists, as well as sexual harassment and any other type of mistreatment;
- Bring to justice those who have engaged in such behaviour;
- Train and educate members of the security forces, especially riot police, to respect the rights of journalists who are doing their jobs;
- Ensure that members of the security forces are able to recognize official, state-issued “yellow press cards” in terms of the cards’ appearance, as well as the significance of such cards, i.e., that the bearer holds the card as the result of an official government determination that he or she is a journalist; and
- Where a journalist does not hold a yellow press card, which is the situation of a majority of journalists in Turkey, ensure that members of the security forces accept identity documents and credentials issued by a media outlet as proof that the individual is a journalist.