Vice News reported last week that Turkish authorities had detained two of the company’s journalists who were filming clashes in Turkey’s restive Kurdish region, allegedly without government permission. The journalists now face a much harsher accusation, with a Turkish court Monday charging them with “engaging in terror” on behalf of the Islamic State.
If convicted, the reporters could potentially serve as much as four-and-a-half years in prison. Alternatively, if the Turkish government treads lightly, the courts may sentence them to a prison term of only four months. Or, in a display of leniency, Ankara may drop the charges altogether.
Amnesty International described the allegations against the journalists as “bizarre”.
Tensions between the Turkish government and the country’s sizeable Kurdish minority erupted in late July following the collapse of a shaky, two-and-a-half year truce. On August 27, when the journalists were arrested, seven people, including four civilians, perished amid fighting in southeast Turkey, where the Kurdish population is concentrated.
Vice News, which prides itself on reporting from volatile places, is no stranger to dangerous political situations. In 2014, pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine abducted a Vice News reporter from the United States who was traveling in the area. Vice News caught a lucky break when the militants released their detainee after three days.
In a statement Monday, the company condemned the arrests of Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury. “The Turkish government has leveled baseless and alarmingly false charges of ‘working on behalf of a terrorist organization’ against three Vice News reporters, in an attempt to intimidate and censor their coverage,” the New York-based media conglomerate said.
At issue is the presence of foreign journalists in a primarily Kurdish province at a time of unrest. The reporters were detained while “reporting and documenting the situation in the southeastern Turkish province of Diyarbakir,” according to a statement by Vice News. Violent clashes between militants belonging to the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist party widely designated as a terrorist group, and government forces have roiled the province in recent weeks.
Ankara, under the administration of the increasingly-autocratic Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has drawn a firm line against foreign media coverage of sensitive topics. In May 2014, plainclothes police grabbed a CNN reporter during a live segment on the one-year anniversary of tumultuous protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. He was released after being held for several days.
Some observers believe that Turkey’s membership in NATO and its aspirations of joining the European Union may restrain it from taking its case against the reporters too far. “I think Turkey could backtrack at some point,” said Merve Tahiroglu, a research associate with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “They are a NATO ally, and this will cause a large backlash from Western nations.”
The incident in Turkey comports with the popular image of Vice News as a fearless but brazen news organization. Comedians Fred Armisen and Bill Hader reference that reputation in an episode of their new series, “Documentary Now!” In an episode that was slated to premiere Thursday, August 27 — the same day of the detentions of the actual Vice News reporters — Armisen and Hader don skinny jeans, fedora hats, and fashionable shirts as they saunter into a Mexican province home to a fictional, trigger-happy Mexican drug cartel. The company’s willingness to embrace risk — and the pop cultural fame it’s earning as a result — is paying off for the company, literally: a spate of recent investments have valued the company at more than $2.5 billion.