ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A lawyer representing two Vice News journalists and their assistant on Tuesday denounced a Turkish court's decision to arrest them on terror-related charges, calling it a government attempt to deter foreign media from reporting on the conflict with Kurdish rebels.
The arrests have prompted strong protests from media rights advocates, the U.S. and the European Union.
A government official speaking on the basis of anonymity denied that Turkey was attempting to suppress journalists, and said the arrests were due to encryption software allegedly found on the assistant's computer.
The two journalists — British correspondent Jake Hanrahan and British cameraman Philip Pendlebury — and their Turkey-based assistant were detained late Thursday in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast, where renewed fighting has killed scores of people. A court ordered the three formally arrested late on Monday on charges of aiding a terror organization
Tahir Elci, head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, said the arrests were a government move to prevent international media from reporting from the area, after Turkey earlier this year gave police heightened powers to crackdown on protesters.
The spokesman rejected the assertion that the journalists' arrests were an attempt to silence media. The Diyarbakir court's decision "reflects the broader concern that there is a real threat toward Turkey's national security," the official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules that bar officials from speaking to journalists without prior authorization.
Elci, the lawyer, said they were told that the journalists were initially taken into custody because of an anonymous tip claiming that they were engaged in activities helping IS recruit followers. The court later accused them of helping armed groups, including the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and its youth wing. Exact charges would be known when the prosecutor submits his indictment, which could take several weeks, Elci told The Associated Press.
All three have rejected the accusations and the assistant has denied having any encryption system on his computer, the lawyer said. He said that he would appeal the court decision for their arrest.
The arrests come amid a surge in government crackdowns on media freedoms. Authorities frequently use vague anti-terrorism or libel laws to prosecute journalists, although international journalists have rarely been prosecuted in recent years. Several prominent Turkish journalists have been fired under government pressure while access to websites is frequently blocked.
The director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists wrote an open letter to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, calling on him to ensure that the Vice News journalists and their assistant are released.
They "were providing badly needed coverage of current events in southeastern Turkey, which are of interest not only to domestic but also to international audiences," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said in Tuesday's letter, which was also sent to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, foreign diplomats in Turkey and EU officials.
"Reporting on sensitive issues, including talking to a variety of news sources, is not a crime and such coverage must never be equated with criminal activity," Simon said.
On Tuesday, police searched the premises of a business and media group close to a U.S.-based moderate Islamic cleric whom the government accuses of trying to destabilize it and detained six company officials for questioning. Critics denounced the action as a government crackdown on opposition voices before an election on Nov. 1.
Vice News, a New York-based news channel that produces documentaries, breaking news reports and investigative pieces, issued a statement Monday criticizing the charges as "baseless and alarmingly false." The U.S. urged Turkish authorities to "ensure their actions uphold universal democratic values, including due process, freedom of expression as well as access to media and information."
In Brussels, EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said Tuesday: ""Any country negotiating EU accession needs to guarantee the respect for human rights, including freedom of expression." she was referring to Turkey's candidacy to become an EU member.
Renewed conflict in Turkey's mostly ethnic Kurdish southeast has seen about 60 soldiers, police and village guards killed since July. Clashes between government security forces and rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, also have killed around 90 rebels, according to state-run media. The fighting has derailed a 2 1/2-year-old peace process.