Celal Baslangic was at his Cologne home on July 16 when two German police officers knocked on his door and warned the veteran Turkish journalist that his name was on an apparent “hit list” of those allegedly to be targeted for violence.
The police provided Baslangic with contact details for an officer overseeing an investigation into a list of about 50 outspoken critics of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, some of whom live in Germany.
Rumors of such a list already were circulating among the exile community. But as police investigate the veracity of the list, attention has turned to whether Ankara has the ability to reach dissidents who have left the country to avoid persecution.
Journalists named on the list and experts say nationalist groups with links to violent crimes operate in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and that exiles who fled persecution in Turkey no longer feel safe.
Baslangic, a veteran journalist with 47 years’ experience, left Turkey in early 2017 as authorities arrested dozens of reporters and others accused of supporting or promoting a failed attempted coup the year before.
The former Cumhuriyet and T24 journalist was charged with terrorist propaganda for taking part in a solidarity campaign with the pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem.
Baslangic told VOA he believes the apparent hit list is an attempt to intimidate journalists and media outlets like Arti TV, the Turkish news network he founded when he moved to Cologne.
“I do not think that this is only because of Erdogan. It is possible to view it as an effort of the coalition partners that will prevent Erdogan from getting closer to both the European Union and NATO,” Baslangic said.
Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has a parliamentary alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The Turkish Embassy in Berlin did not return VOA's emailed requests for comment.
Cologne police confirmed they have been aware of this apparent hit list since mid-July but declined to provide further information about the number of individuals and the identities of those on the list.
“Those affected are journalists, writers, and artists close to the Turkish opposition,” a spokesperson told VOA.
But Baslangic said he wants more transparency about the list.
“We want to know the source of this list so that we can take it seriously, or [know if] it’s just to intimidate us, so that we can tell the difference,” Baslangic said. “No one can distinguish it better than us, because we know the Turkish state, and we know what this state can do.”
For some journalists, like Erk Acarer, the warning he was on the list came as little surprise.
On July 7, three assailants attacked the columnist for daily BirGun, in the courtyard of his Berlin apartment complex. The assailants — who spoke Turkish — warned Acarer to stop writing.
Acarer needed hospital treatment for a head injury, and German police are investigating, the journalist told VOA. He added that police have provided protection for him and his family.
On July 20, however, Berlin police found a threatening note wrapped around a hard-boiled egg in the courtyard to his home.
Acarer says he thinks the Turkish government has a long reach in Europe and beyond.
“Polarization and conflict in Turkey are being carried to Europe and other parts of the world by the AKP and MHP government. … So, I think the assailants are the gangs who have been consolidated by [the Turkish government] and live in Germany,” Acarer told VOA.
Acarer didn't specify a group, though networks that include the Grey Wolves and Osmanen Germania reportedly are operating outside of Turkey.
In a 2020 report, Berlin estimated that in Germany, 11,000 people are affiliated with the ultra-nationalist movement of which the Grey Wolves are a part. The far-right Turkish group has been accused of politically motivated violence in Turkey and abroad.
Separately, German media in 2017 alleged that Metin Kulunk, a high-ranking member of the AKP, had links the Turkish nationalist group Osmanen Germania.
The group was outlawed in Germany in 2018 because of its links to violent crimes and extreme right-wing views.
VOA was not able to find contact information for Kulunk. The media chair of the AKP did not respond to VOA’s email.
Kulunk responded to the 2017 media reports at the time via social media, saying Germany supports the PKK and FETO group, and that its “deep state's media operations are futilely trying to target me and Turkish civil society organizations.”
Ankara says the FETO group was behind the failed attempted coup. The PKK is designated as a terror group by Turkey, U.S. and EU.
No safety in exile
Hayko Bagdat, an exiled Turkish Armenian journalist, says Germany’s foreign policy priorities with Turkey, including the EU refugee deal and Turkey’s potential role in Afghanistan, prevent Berlin from addressing human rights issues with Ankara.
Police also informed Bagdat his name is on the apparent list.
“We are no longer a subject on their agenda at the negotiation table with the Erdogan regime. Democracy in Turkey, prisoners, imprisoned politicians, people in exile or their safety is not even an argument that is used against Erdogan anymore,” Bagdat told VOA.
Because of that, Bagdat said, “Dissidents all over the world do not feel secure.”
The journalist moved to Berlin from Istanbul in 2016 and Turkey later issued a warrant for his arrest on charges including terrorist propaganda and insult.
An official source in Germany’s Foreign Ministry told VOA via email that Germany has “repeatedly campaigned for journalists and the respect for their rights in Turkey.”
“For all people living in Germany, it must be guaranteed that they are not imperiled by any violence, regardless of underlying motivations,” the source said, adding that any “deficits in the respect for freedom of speech and the media are addressed consistently.”
Laurens Hueting, an advocacy officer for the Leipzig-based European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), finds the attack on Acarer and list of alleged targets disturbing.
“Going to live in exile is not enough for Turkish journalists to escape the persecution they face inside their own country, which is quite a frightening development in and of its own,” Hueting told VOA, describing Germany as a “safer haven.”
“What we've been advocating for and saying is that there should not be this half-hearted approach and that human rights should be always at the center and the forefront of this relationship consistently, and not be made subordinate to other geopolitical considerations,” Hueting said.
For all the debates on politics and attention to the apparent hit list, for those directly affected, it is one more threat they must contend with just because of their profession.
When asked if he was taking steps to protect his safety, Baslangic responded, “What can we do? Are we supposed to get guns? We’re journalists and we’re doing our jobs.”
This report originated in VOA’s Turkish service.