A Turkish court has just fanned the flames of an incipient diplomatic crisis between the US and NATO's most problematic member, when it found a Wall Street Journal reporter guilty of engaging in "terrorist propaganda" in support of a banned Kurdish organization. Ayla Albayrak was sentenced to more than two years in prison for writing a 2015 story about clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish separatists in the country’s restive southeast.
While charges have been pending against the reporter - who presently resides in New York and was convicted in absentia – for more than a year, the decision will promptly be interpreted by the US as the latest recrimination in a spat that began last week when Turkey arrested a local employee at the US consulate in Istanbul on terrorism-related charges, alleging he was a supporter of Fehtullah Gulen, an Turkish cleric living in self-imposed exile in the US who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed for last year’s coup attempt. The arrest prompted the US to suspend visa issuance for Turkish citizens, a move that was swiftly reciprocated by the Turkish government. On Monday, Turkey announced charges against another US embassy employee, sending the Turkish lira crashing the most since the July 2016 failed "coup", while local stocks and bonds tumbled in sympathy.
WSJ Editor in Chief Gerry Baker slammed the Turkish court’s decision" “This was an unfounded criminal charge and wildly inappropriate conviction that wrongly singled out a balanced Wall Street Journal report,” said Baker. “The sole purpose of the article was to provide objective and independent reporting on events in Turkey, and it succeeded.”
The reporter, Ayla Albayrak, has dual Finnish and Turkish citizenship. On Aug. 19, 2015, WSJ published an Albayrak story titled “Urban Warfare Escalates in Turkey’s Kurdish-Majority Southeast.” The story and an accompanying video reported on the state of a conflict in Silopi, Turkey, between Turkish security forces and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. It included interviews with the local mayor and residents, a Turkish government official, as well as a representative of an organization Turkey says is the youth unit of the PKK. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by both Turkey and the UK.
“Given the current climate in Turkey, this appalling decision shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but it did,” said Ms. Albayrak.
Trump and Erdogan discussed the improving US-Turkey relationship during a press conference in Washington earlier this year (which in retrospect could have gone better) and Trump offered his personal congratulations to Erdogan after the Turkish president won a referendum vote to retool the country’s constitution and dramatically expand his own powers. However, Turkey has been frustrated by Trump’s refusal to turn over Gulen, as well as a local prosecutors’ decision to charge members of Erdogan’s security detail with assault for attacking a group of Kurdish protesters during Erdogan’s Washington visit.
As part of the article she was convicted for, Albayrak interviewed a person who described herself as a member of the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement, or YDG-H, which the Turkish government says is the youth unit of the PKK. She has maintained that her reporting was based solely on objective fact, and didn’t represent advocacy for the separatists’ cause.
WSJ points out that the case is a rare example of Turkey bringing terrorism charges against a reporter working for a Western media outlet. Deniz Yücel, a prominent German-Turkish journalist for newspaper Die Welt, was arrested in Istanbul in February under terrorism suspicions and remains in pretrial detention.
Turkey’s crackdown on the press has intensified in recent years. Amnesty International and other rights groups say Turkey has more journalists jailed than any other country in the world. Since last summer’s coup attempt, authorities have closed more than 150 media outlets citing Erdogan’s state of emergency.
Turkey is ranked 155 on Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index this year, worse than Russia or Pakistan.
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Meanwhile, after tensions eased modestly following yesterday's crash in the Turkish Lira, which as noted above plunged as much as 8%, its biggest one day drop since the July 2016 "attempted coup", which however promptly drew the Buy the Dippers out of the woodwork, news of the sentencing launched another major round of selling, and in light of the daily tit-for-tat deterioration in diplomacy, this time buyers of Turkish assets may just think twice.