Turkey’s recent detention of two British VICE News journalists and their fixer on terrorism accusations was troubling, but perhaps the most disquieting development was prosecutors’ assertion that the use of an encryption system provided proof that the three were “engaging in terrorist activity” and “aiding a terrorist organisation”.
In a recent article, Al Jazeera quoted a Turkish official who said that one of the main pieces of evidence against the two journalists, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, and local fixer Mohammed Ismael Rasool “seems to be that the fixer uses a complex encryption system on his personal computer that a lot of [Islamic State group] militants also utilise for strategic communications”.
The VICE journalists and their fixer were arrested on Aug. 27, 2015 in front of their hotel in Diyarbakır, where they had been reporting on clashes between Turkish security forces and members of the outlawed Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK). Turkey, the United States and the EU label the PKK a terrorist organisation, and fighting between government troops and the group has intensified in recent months following the collapse of negotiations to end the PKK’s three-decade-long insurgency.
Hanrahan and Pendlebury were released yesterday and transferred to a deportation centre. However, Rasool, who has worked for international news organisations such the Associated Press (AP) and Al Jazeera, remains behind bars.
If the use of encryption is confirmed to be one of the reasons for their arrest, it would mean that Turkish authorities are willing to criminalise the use of tools that are essential to the free practice of journalism. Even if such tools can also be used for malicious purposes by terrorists or criminals, encryption is essential to protect anonymity of sources and their communications with journalists. Criminalising its use will hamper the work of journalists and mark yet one more threat to the already troubled state of media freedom in the country.
International observers have increasingly noted the importance of encryption and anonymity in digital communications. David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, wrote in a recent report: “Journalists, researchers, lawyers and civil society rely on encryption and anonymity to shield themselves (and their sources, clients and partners) from surveillance and harassment.”
Prominent Turkish journalist Kadri Gürsel, who heads the International Press Institute (IPI)’s Turkish National Committee, said the arrest of the two foreign journalists and their fixer on terrorism accusations was an “alarming violation of press freedom in Turkey”.
He continued: “The onslaught against freedom of the press in Turkey has reached new dimensions with this new aggression, which aims to prevent members of international media outlets from reporting from this new conflict zone.”
Gürsel explained that the arrests revealed that Turkish authorities have effectively criminalised the use of encryption systems. He argued: “We have to press home to authorities that the use of such tools in conflict zones is considered legitimate in the free world on the ground of a journalist’s right to protect his or her resources and contacts from hostilities”.
Journalists in Turkey have faced a number of deeply entrenched challenges, as an IPI special report released earlier this year noted, and the country has witnessed a sharp escalation in the climate of hostility against journalists as a new parliamentary election set for Nov. 1 approaches.
Those challenges have long included criminal penalties for daring to report on certain topics. But now, Turkey’s government seems to be saying, journalists should fear that the very tools they need to carry out their profession can be used to arrest and imprison them.
That development is unacceptable. Prosecutors should drop all charges in this case immediately and release Mr. Rasool. And Turkish authorities must stand up and unequivocally state that the use of legitimate tools to conduct journalism is not a crime.
The press freedom work of the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) is supported by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) project, as part of a grant by the European Commission.