ECPMF financially supports case of Dutch freelancer thrown out of Turkey

by Ana Ribeiro

One may think that foreign journalists working in Turkey have more protection than local ones, due to diplomatic protocols. That is not necessarily so, as Dutch freelancer Fréderike Geerdink – whose case the ECPMF is supporting – can attest.

“As a foreigner, I had always felt free to do my work; it was the locals who always got in trouble,” Geerdink told the ECPMF. “But being a foreigner doesn’t really protect us anymore.”

Geerdink Fréderike Geerdink (picture: Mona van den Berg)

Geerdink had been assiduously reporting for various high-profile international outlets on one of the most contentious issues in Turkey – that of the Kurdish minority. Turkish authorities threw out the correspondent in September 2015, and banned her from re-entering the country.

Since Geerdink works as a freelancer rather than on fixed contract with any one news organisation, she is unable to cover additional legal costs. The ECPMF is contributing €1000 to her case as her attorney, Ramazan Demir, appeals the Turkish authorities’ decision.

Although she could count on backing by Dutch and European diplomacy as the Turkish government persecuted her, “there’s only so much they can do” amid the rising climate of oppression in the country, Geerdink said.

She still considers herself lucky as a foreigner in comparison with what local journalists in Turkey have had to face. But there is definitely an increasing crackdown on foreign correspondents under the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan regime.

I thought Erdoğan didn’t really want to have a fight with the EU on media freedom. But this proved Erdoğan doesn’t really care about what Europe thinks.”

No longer safe

Geerdink recounts that in 2013, Turkey refused to renew her press card, and EU parliamentarians intervened on her behalf and “solved the problem”. But the situation escalated in January 2015, when she was detained on allegations of “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation” via her columns for Diken, an independent Turkish news website.

At the time, the Dutch minister of foreign affairs demanded her release, and she was let go and acquitted. Turkish authorities then proceeded to appeal the court decision, and she could still be sentenced to up to five years in prison in the country.

Turkey: Stop the purge, restore human rights! Turkey's President Erdogan. Photo: Andreas Lamm

Meanwhile, Geerdink's attorney brought a case against the state to try to overturn her deportation, which happened after she entered a restricted zone in Hakkâri Province to report a story. In September 2015, The Guardian published an article about her and other foreign media workers being persecuted in Turkey. Such situation had been raising alarm bells in the international community well before Erdoğan’s measures over the failed coup in July 2016.

The article noted that Geerdink was expelled from Turkey for covering a protest against re-erupting violence between government forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the southeastern province. It also mentioned that two British Vice News reporters had been arrested the same month on terrorism charges.

While the two Brits – who had also been reporting on the PKK in southeastern Turkey – were released within days and returned to the UK, an Iraqi colleague of theirs remained in a Turkish prison until January 2016.  

Pressing on

Despite all the trouble and danger, Geerdink would like to return to Turkey one day, and in the meantime keeps reporting on the Kurds from Iraq and Syria. They have become the focus of her work over the past six years.

Geerdink told the ECPMF that her interest in the Kurds developed gradually. She moved to Turkey in December 2006 after realising she could make a living as a freelancer there, due to high interest in the country on the part of her native Netherlands and internationally.

Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)

The PKK’s headquarters are in the Qandil mountains of Iraq, where Geerdink and other reporters have been allowed over the past years. The group – listed as a terrorist organisation in Turkey, the US and the EU – has been advocating for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey in an armed struggle lasting more than 30 years. A two-year period of truce and peace talks between the Turkish state and the PKK ended in July 2015. The regime has continued its efforts to root out the PKK, targeting also Kurdish civilians and their media outlets based on alleged ties to the organisation.

The correspondent said the turning point in her reporting happened five years later, in December 2011. It was then that an air raid by Turkish forces killed 34 smugglers in the Turkish-Iraqi border, all of them Kurdish villagers from Turkey.

She decided to further investigate the massacre and follow the Kurdish issue, in general, more closely in Turkey. In summer 2012, she moved to the main Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir, while most foreign correspondents she knew of stuck to Istanbul or Ankara.

The book she wrote on the massacre, The Boys Are Dead (2014), has been published in Dutch, English and Turkish. After her expulsion from Turkey, Geerdink began working on a long-term investigative project on the PKK for a second book, “to describe the organisation from within”.

Since May 2016, Geerdink has been moving to different PKK bases in Iraq (including its headquarters), with the avowal of the organisation’s high-ranking leadership. However, she says that she must negotiate with local leadership anew with every location she moves to, because they get to decide on the local level whether to allow her presence.

“They have been treating me well,” Geerdink said. “But there’s a conflict between my journalistic desires and their willingness to be open.”