Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan filed a criminal complaint Friday against a French magazine over a cover accusing him of "ethnic cleansing," according to the state-owned Anadolu Agency.
The filing was the latest example of efforts by the Erdogan government to restrict press freedoms in Turkey.
The complaint filed against the French magazine Le Point's director, Etienne Gernelle, as well as the editor in chief of the publication's international section, Romain Gubert, was based on the cover of the October 24 issue, which depicts Erdogan saluting under the headline "The Eradicator," with the subtitle "Ethnic cleansing: the Erdogan method."
Prosecutors alleged the cover constituted an insult to the president, a crime under Turkish law commonly used to target journalists in Turkey, according to Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch, an international NGO that conducts research and advocacy for human rights.
"The charge in general is one that's been in the penal code for years. But it was not until Erdogan became president that there's been a huge escalation in the use of that charge to prosecute people who are critical of the president," Sinclair-Webb said.
Turkish reporters are frequent targets of Erdogan, but increasingly foreign journalists based in Turkey are also facing legal action, said Nate Schenkkan, director for special research at Freedom House, an independent think tank that covers issues related to democracy and human rights.
"I think the main point is that from an international perspective, [the charge] has no merit … from a Turkish perspective, there have been lots of these cases. I would say many have been brought as a warning or threat rather than to put someone in prison," Schenkkan said.
In September, U.S.-based Bloomberg News reported that two of its journalists were facing up to five years in prison for a report on how Turkey's financial regulators and banks were responding to the country's economic difficulties. And in October 2017, a reporter working for The Wall Street Journal was sentenced to prison in absentia for charges related to a 2015 story covering the conflict against Turkey's Kurdish minority in the country's southeast.
Le Point's criticism of Turkey's military operation against Kurdish groups in Syria is a particular area of concern for Erdogan's government, according to Schenkkan.
The Turkish president has been accused by some of pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing against the Kurdish population of northern Syria with its military incursion into the region, dubbed Operation Peace Spring. Critics allege that the operation is designed to drive out the region's Kurds so that Turkey can resettle Arab Syrians in their place.
Ankara says the incursion is necessary to eliminate armed groups that the Turkish government considers terrorists, including the Kurdish YPG and PKK.
"I think that from the government perspective, they feel that they face unfair criticism for the operations in Syria. They're accused of ethnic cleansing, they're accused of attacking the Kurds … the problem is when you bring a court case and claim that this is somehow illegal," Schenkkan said.
'They are panicked'
Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin previously attacked Le Point's October 24 cover on Twitter.
"The reason they attack our president is clear: they are panicked when their intrigues are foiled with the blow to their agents in Syria. The Kurds are not your agents and never will be. Your days of colonization are over," Kalin tweeted in a thread containing an image of the cover on Thursday.
And while foreign journalists based in Turkey previously have been charged by authorities for reports critical of the government, the fact that a foreign publications like Le Point was targeted directly is unusual, according to Sinclair-Webb.
"It creates a chilling environment for all media, including foreign media," Sinclair-Webb said.
But Schenkkan said the case against Le Point most likely would not discourage foreign journalists working in Turkey, who are used to this sort of pressure for criticizing the government's policies.
"I don't think this will change anything for them since this is par for the course. I think foreign journalists in Turkey have become highly aware of minding their p's and q's," said Schenkkan. "They continue to report on things, [but] the government has laid down markers to say that we will come down hard on you if we don't like your reporting. So it takes a lot of courage to continue doing it."