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Turkey Arrests 3 Advocates for Press Freedom

FILE - People rally in support of press freedom in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 9, 2015.
FILE - People rally in support of press freedom in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 9, 2015.

In what journalists rights groups call a further deterioration of press freedoms in Turkey, three prominent pro-media activists were arrested Monday on "terrorists' propaganda" charges, according to Turkish media reports.

The detained journalists are identified as Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders; Sebnem Korur Fincani, president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey; and Ahmet Nesin, a writer and journalist.

The three were arrested for participating in the solidarity campaign launched by the Diyarbakir-based Association of Free Journalists for the pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem (which, in English, means "Free Agenda"). The newspaper is known for its coverage of Kurdish issues and the decades-long conflict between the Turkish army and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party). The PKK seeks Kurdish autonomy, and the Turkish government considers it a terrorist organization.

Ozcan Kilic, the newspaper's lawyer, told VOA the three were participating in a program where each acted as a co-editor of Özgür Gündem to "show solidarity with the newspaper in the face of relentless judicial harassment and to defend freedom of the press."

"Our reporters have been exposed to heavy pressures by the government and judiciary," Kilic said. "Our editors-in-chief have been investigated and banned from traveling abroad. There are criminal cases against them."

According to Kilic, 49 people — among them journalists, writers, actors, professors and former lawmakers — offered to help the newspaper editorially. Of them, 40 are under investigation, he said.

"And today, three of them have been arrested after working as our volunteer editors for Özgür Gündem for only one day," he said.

The three testified before the public prosecutor in the state judiciary's Terrorism and Organized Crimes Bureau before they were arrested.

The ongoing investigations and arrests were roundly condemned by rights and press freedom groups on Monday.

Reporters Without Borders called the arrests "an unbelievable low for press freedom in Turkey."

According to the 2015 annual prison report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Turkey ranked as the world's "leading jailer" of journalists for the second consecutive year, with 40 journalists behind bars.

Faruk Eren, chairman of the Press Union of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, told VOA that he acted as editor-in-chief of Özgür Gündem on May 3 and has been under investigation since then.

"This is a very dark day for us," he said. "Press freedom and freedom of speech are now considered a crime. We were hoping that our colleagues would be questioned and released. But they were arrested."

Uğur Güç, Turkish Journalists Association chairman, said, "We are witnessing the violation of laws. This is a political decision, not a legal one. We need to stop this."

The board of directors of the Turkish Journalists Association issued a statement criticizing the arrests.

"It has become impossible to report freely," the group said in a statement. "It is unacceptable to link journalism with terrorist propaganda."