In Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, a news network staffed entirely by women is taking the lead in reporting on women's rights. But in doing so, JIN News finds itself targeted by the government's “war on terrorism.”
Founded in 2017 under the mantra "On the path to truth, with a woman's pen," JIN News says its goal is to expose exploitation and violence faced by women.
"We are wherever women are," Gulsen Kocuk, editor of JIN News Turkish service, told VOA. "We report, in a way, on every aspect of their life, with the aim of making women visible, making women's work visible, and providing a platform to express their views."
Based in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, JIN News reports both in Turkish and Kurdish, with a staff of about 20. The agency has offices across the region serving its web page, which is funded by personal subscriptions.
The region in which JIN is based is the center of a decades-long battle between the Kurdish separatist group the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and the Turkish state, a conflict the government says has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
The PKK is designated by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization.
Much of JIN’s reporting focuses on alleged human rights abuses by security forces. In October, two of its journalists broke a story that accused Turkish soldiers of throwing from a helicopter two shepherds, killing one and severely injuring the other.
The story became front-page news across Turkey’s main independent media. The interior ministry later confirmed the incident but maintains the injuries were sustained while the two shepherds were trying to escape capture.
However, one of the JIN News reporters—Sehriban Abi, from the city of Van—was arrested on charges of “inciting enmity against the state” and “membership of a terrorist organization,” and remains in detention.
The Turkish government and prosecutors regularly accuse JIN News of terrorist propaganda. With the laws' catch-all phrases, rights groups claim it opens the door to prosecution to normal journalist activities, including attending political rallies and funerals of killed militants.
At least 37 journalists were in jail in Turkey on December 1, nearly all accused of such charges, according to annual data released by the Committee to Protect Journalist. The New York-based rights group ranks Turkey second only to China in detaining the media.
"There was big oppression against women's journalists during our time as JIN agency," said Kocuk. "We faced many situations like arrests, detentions, office raids and confiscation of our technical equipment. Probably the majority of JIN reporters have been taken into custody. Almost 20 of our colleagues had been in and out of prison."
Turkey’s Communications Ministry did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
The government defends its measures, saying the country is facing powerful and dangerous conspiracies, which have developed networks throughout Turkey’s society, including within the media.
Critics, as well as journalists, say the broadness and ambiguousness of the antiterror legislation, though, make it difficult to know what is legal and illegal. This makes reporting on contentious subjects like the war against the PKK and government malpractice risky.
JIN News also has reported allegations of abuse of women at the hands of security forces, including claims of rape. Such stories often result in the reports being banned by court or interior ministry gagging orders, according to Kocuk of JIN News.
Turkey, which has a number of laws and regulations to control web pages and social media, also has blocked access to the JIN News web page at least ten times.
In a familiar game of cat-and-mouse that alternative media organizations play with authorities, JIN sidesteps these bans by reissuing the site under a slightly modified name.
But it's not only JIN's reporting on contentious subjects that makes it a target of prosecutors.
"They are not treated as journalists. They are treated as terrorists, and this is the problem," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior Turkish researcher of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"The government doesn't understand there is a right to do objective journalism," Sinclair-Webb said. "The other reason, in the last year, we've seen particular intolerance by government officials of women's rights activism around the Istanbul Convention and combating violence against women."
The Istanbul Convention is an international treaty guaranteeing women's rights, from which some government ministers are calling for Turkey to withdraw.
Women's rights movements across Turkey have become a vocal opponent to the government, which they say has failed to enforce laws to protect women against domestic violence and threatens to reverse hard-won gender rights, including access to abortion.
Sinclair-Webb says the targeting of women's activists by the authorities is particularly severe in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish region, where fighting for gender rights is a major policy for Kurdish political parties.
The People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey's main legal pro-Kurdish party, has a policy of all elected positions being jointly held by a man and woman. The HDP has been accused by Ankara of having links to the PKK—a link it denies. A key policy demand of the Kurdish rebel group the PKK is the equality of women.
"It's a region of gross gender inequality, very low levels of women in employment, high levels of domestic violence in the region," said Sinclair-Webb.
"You have a Kurdish political movement very focused on gender equality," she added. "So the idea of a having a women's news agency did come out of a kind of political impulse in the region to tackle the problem."
"So it allows the government to say if the Kurdish political movement is very focused on gender equality, so any news agency focused on gender equality must be involved in politics and terrorism, not journalism," said Sinclair-Webb.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is vowing no let-up on the war on terrorism and what he calls "terrorist supporters." It’s a thinly veiled reference, analysts say, to the county's legal Kurdish political movement and broader civil society.
Despite the risks they face, the journalists at JIN News have no plans to stop.
"Fear doesn't even enter our mind," said Kocuk of JIN News. "Of course, we wish to be able to write in a safer environment. But if you are advocating for a free press, there shouldn't be a place for fear because fear makes you stand back. We are not afraid, and we keep writing."