ISTANBUL — Turkish authorities on Monday arrested the local representative for Reporters Without Borders, a global press freedom watchdog, in a move likely to draw further criticism of a government already under fire for its crackdown on dissent.
A Turkish court ordered that Erol Onderoglu, the organization’s Turkey representative, be placed in pretrial detention on charges of distributing terrorist propaganda. The court also detained journalist Ahmet Nesin and academic Sebnem Korur Fincanci, who serves as head of the Turkey Human Rights Foundation.
All three defendants had testified in front of the public prosecutor about their support for pro-Kurdish media outlet Ozgur Gundem. The publication has been targeted by critics who say it is too close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a decades-old militant group seeking autonomy for Turkey's ethnic Kurds.
But Turkish authorities consider the PKK a terrorist organization and have moved to suppress voices critical of its military campaign in majority Kurdish towns in the southeast.
Onderoglu and others had expressed solidarity with Ozgur Gundem, participating in a campaign where the defendants each served as editor-in-chief for the day, media reports said. Turkey has detained scores of dissidents for alleged ties to the PKK since fighting intensified about a year ago.
Onderoglu “has stood for all persecuted journalists in Turkey and abroad,” Reporters Without Borders, widely known by its French acronym, RSF, posted Monday on Twitter.
The Paris-based organization called its employee’s arrest an “unbelievable low” for press freedom in Turkey. A senior Turkish official declined to comment on the court’s decision.
The arrests show “that expressing solidarity is regarded by the authorities as a crime punishable with prison,” Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom representative for the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a statement. The OSCE is a regional security organization based in Vienna.
“The authorities should drop the charges and stop using imprisonment as a way to fight differing voices," Mijatovic said.
Turkey has long been one of the world's worst violators of media freedom, according to watchdogs like RSF. In recent years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has personally gone after critics, bringing hundreds of cases against dissidents for crimes such as “insulting the president.”
Authorities have also taken a hard line against demonstrations, dispatching riot police to disperse protesters with tear gas and water cannons. On Sunday, security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at a pride parade for the transgender population in Istanbul.
“The job of the state is not to be an obstacle to citizens practicing their rights,” said Levent Piskin, an Istanbul-based lawyer and rights activist. “But of course, in Turkey, you can never actually trust the state.”