Exclusive: Why Turkey Arrested Two Foreign Journalists

Two British reporters for VICE news, and their translator, have been charged as supporters of Kurdish group PKK, though they were first accused of being pro-ISIS.

VICE News correspondent Jake Hanrahan and cameraman Philip Pendlebury
VICE News correspondent Jake Hanrahan and cameraman Philip Pendlebury
Ismail Saymaz

DIYARBAKIR â€" VICE News correspondent Jake Hanrahan, cameraman Philip Pendlebury and their local guide and translator Mohamed Ismail Rasool were detained in Diyarbakir, Turkey last Thursday. On Monday, the local Turkish court issued official charges of “aiding an armed organization.” Now as criticism mounts from press freedom activists inside and outside of Turkey, Radikal has exclusive new details on the case.

The three men were detained after a phone call by an anonymous informant to the police accusing the news team of being pro-ISIS. However, they were later accused of backing the PKK (the Kurdish separatist group that Ankara considers terrorists) because they had conducted video interviews with members of YDG-H, the youth branch of PKK. The journalists told investigators that they were recording scenes of life in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, which included masked people with guns. They denied having any ties to either ISIS or PKK.

The court, however, chose to order their arrest, determining there is “reasonable doubt” as to their guilt.

The unidentified informant called the police on Aug. 27 and said: ”Four people arrived at the Hilton. They are staying there. Two of them are British citizens," according to documents obtained by Radikal. "They are speaking to ISIS members. They are trying to help arrange supporters and suicide bombers for bombing attacks of military facilities or police stations. Do not ask me questions.”

Diyarbakir police detained the three with their driver at the Hilton that night on suspicion of “taking action in the name of the terrorist organization ISIS.” However, all the subsequent questions they were asked were about the PKK.

Hanrahan, 25, testified that they came to Istanbul from London on Aug. 22 and went first to towns of Mardin and Cizre in southeastern Turkey. “Our goal for going to Cizre was to report on the domestic disturbance and to shoot a documentary about how the citizens live there,” he said.

Hanrahan said they moved to Diyarbakır on Aug. 25. “We started filming the living conditions and lifestyles of the people in the town center and in locations we do not exactly know. There were people who have covered their faces and carried guns. We recorded them on camera. I do not have any connections to ISIS or PKK. I do not know the people whom we recorded.”

In Diyarbakir â€" Photo: MikaelF

Dark times

Hanrahan was asked why he had written the acronym "PKK," together with notes on the organization and its leader Abdullah Öcalan, in his confiscated notebook. He said,”I am a reporter. I have to know the organization, their leaders and goals for the story I am working on.” He was also questioned about a phone number he had to contact the YDG-H members.

Pendlebury, 29, was questioned about the recordings on his camera which included visuals of armed YDG-H members, interviews with these people, visuals of streets where trenches were dug to keep the security forces away and pictures of Molotov Cocktails and homemade explosives.

“I travel to zones where there is chaos and war, like Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Afghanistan under direction of my company to record the lifestyles of the people who live there," Pendlebury said. "I came to Turkey with this same objective. I recorded the masked people with my camera because I am a war journalist.”

Rasool said he works as a translator for the two journalists.

The four suspects were transferred to the Diyarbakir 2nd Court of Penal Peace after the questioning by the prosecutor led to Judge Hamza Türker issuing formal charges of “knowingly and willingly aiding an armed organization despite not being featured in its hierarchy.”

Tahir Elçi, a lawyer for the journalists and head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, said: “It's the first time since 1993 that two journalists are arrested like this. The two claims â€" being supporters for ISIS and aiding the YDG-H â€" are inconsistent," he told Radikal. "Intelligence agencies or the police may have been disturbed by their journalistic activities. This arrest is a result of the resumption of armed clashes on July 21 between Turkish and Kurdish forces, especially as seen as a means of intimidation for the international media to block it from covering the area. This is a sign of a dark period.”

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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