Mezopotamya News Agency, one of the few surviving independent press outlets in Turkey, has defied the country’s tough anti-press environment to celebrate the fifth anniversary of its founding this week.
When the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya Agency was founded on 20 September 2017, the Turkish Republic was in the midst of one of the most repressive periods of its history.
During a three-year state of emergency declared in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pursued critics, political rivals and independent journalists in a series of sweeping purges and police operations.
The AKP says the arrests and dismissals of hundreds of thousands of civil servants, politicians, military personnel and press workers were necessary to combat the Gülen religious movement, which is blamed for the coup attempt, and outlawed Kurdish groups including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
But many believe the purges went far beyond their professed targets and were used as a means to negate opposition and crush dissent. Months after the coup attempt, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won a key referendum, held under emergency rule, that handed him unprecedented powers under a new presidential system.
Observers noted the suppression of the opposition’s campaign prior to the referendum, and irregularities on the day of the vote, during which the country’s electoral authority called a halt mid-way through the count and announced a sudden change of rules that would allow unverified ballots to be accepted.
All the while, the AKP’s hold over the press meant that these and many other instances went unreported in Turkey’s mainstream press.
The period saw forerunners of Mezopotamya Agency such as Özgür Gündem newspaper shuttered and journalists prosecuted under anti-terror laws.
The Özgür Gündem case saw 20 journalists arrested, including columnist Aslı Erdoğan, editor in-chief Zana Kaya, and newsroom editor İnan Kızılkaya, and charged with membership of a terrorist organisation.
This proved to be an enduring accusation in Turkey’s recent history, which has seen thousands of members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including former co-chair and 2018 candidate for Turkey’s presidency Selahattin Demirtaş, arrested on similar charges.
Mezopotomya’s journalists have faced similar charges. Sadiye Eser and Sadık Topaloğlu were arrested and held from December 2019 to March 2020. Adnan Bilen and Cemil Uğur were arrested in October 2020 after reporting that Turkish security forces had tortured Kurdish villagers by throwing them out of a helicopter, and were released in April 2021. Another journalist, Mehmet Aslan, is awaiting trial after reporting on the situation of Kurdish prisoners.
And Turkish authorities have continued to hound independent media outlets with broadcast bans, fines and other repressive measures. Mezopotamya has seen access to its site blocked in Turkey 34 times; each time the news agency has circumvented the ban by using a new domain.
Over its two decades in power, the AKP has developed a strong reputation for its efforts to control Turkey’s media. Besides direct repression of dissenting voices, which has led to Turkey frequently being named the world’s biggest jailer of journalists over the last decade by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the AKP has also exerted control over the media landscape through the allegiance of media bosses.
When the government-linked Demirören Holding bought the last quasi-independent daily broadsheet, Hürriyet, in 2018, an estimated 90 percent of Turkey’s media outlets by circulation was controlled by businesses with ties to the AKP. This has led many in Turkey to turn to online outlets as their main news sources, with agencies such as Mezopotamya and online media platforms such as Medyascope satisfying Turkish-speakers’ need for independent news.
“Since the day we started broadcasting, access to our website has been blocked 34 times,” Mezopotamya said in a statement on Tuesday. “Due to the request of the government, our approved Facebook pages were closed, restrictions were imposed on our social media accounts, the cameras of our reporters were confiscated, or broken by the police.”
“Dozens of our reporters were detained, arrested, threatened, insulted, and new cases were added to the ongoing cases against them every day,” it said. “But the Mezopotamya Agency did not take a single step back. We continued to write news stories that had an influence not only in Turkey, but worldwide.”