Turkey arrests three prominent press-freedom campaigners

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish authorities on Monday arrested three prominent campaigners for press freedom, including the local representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda, human rights groups said.

A journalist of pro-Kurdish Ozgur Gundem gives an interview to a German TV channel at their newsroom before a protest against the arrest of three prominent campaigners for press freedom, in front of the pro-Kurdish Ozgur Gundem newspaper in central Istanbul, Turkey, June 21, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

The arrests further stoked fears for media freedom in Turkey under President Tayyip Erdogan following a series of high-profile cases against opposition newspapers and broadcasters.

The three are RSF representative Erol Onderoglu, author Ahmet Nesin and Sebnem Korur Fincanci, president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. A court ordered they be held in pre-trial detention after they guest-edited a newspaper on Kurdish issues and campaigned against efforts to censor it, said RSF and another group, EuroMed Rights.

A statement from European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said the court decision “goes against Turkey’s commitment to respect fundamental rights, including freedom of media.

“The EU has repeatedly stressed that Turkey, as a candidate country (for EU membership), must aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices,” read the statement, which was shared with reporters.

Onderoglu was arrested for his work on three articles about security operations in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast and infighting among security forces which appeared in the May 18 edition of the Ozgur Gundem magazine, said Johann Bihr from RSF.

Bihr described Onderoglu, who had worked for RSF for two decades, as a “victim of the abuses he always denounced”.

An official at Erdogan’s office declined to comment on the cases. It was unclear how long the three would be held in custody or when they would face trial.

Separately, top-selling Hurriyet newspaper said its New York correspondent, Razi Canikligil, was detained on Monday upon his arrival at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. It offered no further details, including what charges he might face.

Canikligil has reported on the U.S. prosecution of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab on charges he helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Zarrab’s arrest in Florida in March and the case against him has captured attention in Turkey, where he was detained in 2013 in a corruption probe into individuals with close ties to Erdogan. A U.S. judge in New York on Monday scheduled Zarrab’s trial for Jan. 23.

Last month, Turkey came under fire for sentencing two prominent journalists at the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper to at least five years in jail for revealing state secrets in a case in which Erdogan was named as a complainant.

Authorities have seized or shut down several newspapers and taken broadcasters off the air in the last year, usually citing security concerns. They deny trying to muzzle free expression.

Turkey’s record on press freedoms and broader human rights has increased reservations among some European politicians about whether Turkey, a NATO member, is a suitable candidate for European Union membership.

But their criticism has been relatively muted in recent months because the EU needs Turkey’s close cooperation in curbing the flow of illegal migrants into Europe.

Under a deal agreed in March, Turkey is set to benefit from speedier EU accession talks and visa-free access to Europe for its citizens if it takes back all migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean Sea to Greece illegally.

Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Gareth Jones and Jonathan Oatis