Along with increased pressure and threats from unfriendly governments, journalists in some parts of the world face the prospect of becoming bargaining chips.
The German magazine Der Spiegel reported this week that Berlin is considering allowing Ankara to make a previously prohibited arms purchase from a German firm in exchange for the release of journalist Deniz Yucel, who has been imprisoned in Turkey for 11 months without charge or trial. Yucel, a citizen of both Germany and Turkey, was detained on unfounded allegations of espionage and terrorism — a fate many other Turkish journalists have faced since a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016.
Turkey was recently given the dubious distinction of having more journalists behind bars than any other country — 73 at last count, according to a report published in December by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Globally, the organization said, a record number of journalists were imprisoned in 2017.
“This is further evidence that the space for freedom of expression in Turkey is closing by the day,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. If reports of a swap are indeed true, Mahoney said, it would be a “disturbing development and would represent a new low in Turkey’s press repression.”
The Turkish embassy in Washington did not respond to telephone and email requests from The Washington Post for comment on the case.
According to Der Spiegel, Germany has refused to give arms manufacturer Rheinmetall an export license to sell to Turkey. The refusal was one part of the long-running tensions between Germany and Turkey, which have feuded over the presence of Turkish dissidents in Germany, Berlin's criticism of Turkey's crackdown on civil society and other issues.
Yucel, however, wants no part of the potential deal between his native country and his adopted one. “I don’t want my freedom to be tainted by German tanks and arms,” he told Evrensel, a Turkish daily newspaper. “Neither do I want my freedom to be tainted by the return of those who have previously been co-conspirators with the government (and should be tried) but are currently seeking refuge in Germany. I will not be a part of any dirty deal.”
The case is a vivid example of how the plight of an individual journalist can be elevated into a key piece in a foreign-policy puzzle. While instances of imprisoned journalists reaching into the realm of geopolitics are rare, press-freedom watchdogs say such “judicial hostage-takings” — when a state detains and holds a journalist for foreign policy advantage — are not unheard of.
Dual nationals in particular can be high-value targets. (The author of this piece, a dual citizen of the United States and Iran, was imprisoned by the Iranian government from 2014 to 2016.) Their connections and life abroad provide a pretense of suspicion for local authorities, and their status as natives subject to local laws often means they can be denied access to lawyers and other protections more easily than foreign nationals.
While judicial hostage-takings are rare, press-freedom advocates stress that the stakes for journalists around the world have never been higher. Heightened tensions between governments and the press are on view around the world — perhaps especially in the United States.
Earlier this month, the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a pointed response to President Trump’s “fake news awards,” announced its own Press Oppressor awards. Trump and Erdogan were cited along with the presidents of Russia, China and Egypt — all places long known for stifling expression.
“We are noticing a transnational assault on free speech by strongmen around the globe and that, because of the jobs we do, journalists have become prime targets,” wrote Kathy Kiely, the National Press Club Journalism Institute's press freedom fellow, in an email to The Post. “We all need to understand that what happens to reporters in one country could soon happen to us in ours.”