Turkish and international media representatives have expressed outrage following the announcement that Washington-based Turkish journalists Adem Yavuz Arslan and Ali Aslan were forced out of the lobby of a hotel in New York and attacked by the bodyguards of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Thursday.
According to Arslan, the Washington representative of the Bugün daily two advisors of President Erdoğan said, “your existence is a crime,” in reference to journalists critical of the government.
Yavuz and Aslan, the Washington representative of the Zaman daily, were trying to report on the meeting between Erdoğan and US vice president Joe Biden in the Peninsula Hotel in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
Erdoğan has in the past blocked journalists and media outlets critical of the government — such as the Zaman and İpekmedia groups – from attending or covering important political events normally open to the press.
The two journalists had been waiting in the lobby along with other journalists during the meeting. However, according to Arslan, advisor to the president Mustafa Varank first insulted and swore at the journalist and then ordered the president’s nephew Ali Erdoğan — who is working as the president’s bodyguard — to take Arslan out of the hotel. The reporter said the younger Erdoğan swore at him in front of everybody in the hotel’s lobby and forced him outside.
Speaking to the Bugün TV network on a live broadcast on Thursday night, Arslan reported that as he was waiting outside the hotel, two men in civilian dress started to kick and threaten him. After a while, two of Erdoğan’s advisors arrived and they verbally attacked and threatened him and attempted to attack him physically.
“As I was telling one of my colleagues outside the hotel about the incident, two civilians deliberately ran into me and tried to grab me. Although I had not said a word to them, they kicked and swore at me. When I asked who they were, they told me to never mind who they were. They told me to go with them and threatened me by saying, ‘you don’t have the right to live.’ Then, [Erdoğan advisors] Şenol Kazancı and Aydın Ünal came and verbally attacked me. They said that our existence is a crime,” Arslan said on Bugün TV Thursday evening.
Erdoğan’s bodyguards also verbally attacked and attempted to physically attack Zaman’s Aslan in the hotel, but he was rescued by American police officers.
Aslan told reporters following the attack that he left the hotel of his own accord in order not to disturb the peace after the tension.
Aslan later tweeted: “American police officers came and protected me from Erdoğan’s bodyguards. Then, I left the hotel of my own accord so as not to disturb the piece. Erdoğan’s bodyguards attempted to follow me as I was leaving the hotel with American police officers as escorts, and another American police officer prevented the bodyguards from attacking me.”
Aslan reported after the incident that when the Turkish bodyguards insisted that he should leave the hotel since he was not wanted there, a couple of junior hotel staff asked him to leave because he was not a customer. In response, Aslan ordered a lemonade, which consequently meant he was a lobby customer. However, Erdoğan’s security force kept asking him to leave claiming Aslan was a security threat. “I am unarmed, how can I constitute a threat?” Aslan asked as he reminded police officers of his constitutional rights. After speaking with a police officer, Aslan complied with his suggestion to leave the hotel to protect his own security.
International press advocacy body ARTICLE 19 has said it is “appalled” by a verbal and physical attack by any government official on a representative of the press.
“It is imperative that a government official, in any capacity, respect a journalist’s right to carry out their work,” ARTICLE 19 said, recalling an open letter few days ago it penned with other free speech organizations that called on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to use his influence “to foster a culture where freedom of expression can flourish and where Turkey’s talented community of writers, journalists and publishers can exercise their right to freedom of expression freely and without fear of intimidation.”
Talking to Today’s Zaman, Karin Karlekar from Freedom House said that the institution condemns attacks on journalist wherever they take place. According to her, the most recent attack on journalists is “indicative of Erdoğan’s views on the press and his intolerance of criticism or questioning.”
Commenting to Today’s Zaman on the incident, which speaks of new lows on media pressure by Erdoğan, Jo Glanville, the director of English PEN, said, “The intimidation of Turkish journalists covering President Erdoğan’s visit to the United Nations is unacceptable.” Pointing out that in the same week Erol Özkoray, the author of a book on the Gezi protests, received a suspended sentence for defaming President Erdoğan, Glanville said that English PEN is concerned with the consistent failure of the government to safeguard freedom of expression in Turkey. He added that “space for opposition, criticism and dissent is essential in a healthy democracy.”
After the incident in New York, Arslan told Bugün TV late on Thursday that he will ask for the footage of the security cameras at the hotel to file a complaint.
The president of the Press Council in Turkey, Pınar Türenç, condemned the attack on the two journalists by Erdoğan’s nephew and bodyguards. Türenç said that the attacks are unacceptable in terms of the freedom of press. In a written statement on Friday, Türenç asked the following about the actions of the president’s nephew: Does the person who insulted journalists who were doing their job and forced them out of a hotel have an official status in the Presidency? Does he have a role aside from being the relative of the president? Based on what right was he able to force journalists out?
Türenç urged all to defend the freedom of media and expression, and said informing journalists with accurate information is more necessary than targeting them.
Another major media organization in Turkey, the Turkish Journalists Association (TGC) said in a statement on Friday that it is unfortunate for an administration to make restrictions a rule in terms of press freedoms. Stating that the TGS has always been against restrictions, it said the government has been directly preventing critical journalists from performing their duties. It urged the government to stop putting restrictions on press outlets.
Doğan Akın, one of the founders of independent media association Punto 24, told Today’s Zaman that the attack on the journalists is not acceptable, but was not surprised to hear about such an incident given the direction of media freedoms in Turkey. According to him, the physical attack on journalists by Erdoğan’s bodyguards is just an addition to already existing media pressure.
Arslan said on TV that he particularly resented the silence and indifference of his fellow journalists who traveled to New York on the private plane of President Erdoğan. Akın said that in Turkey, many journalists do not care about the restrictions placed on their colleagues as long as they are not affected by them.
According to Akın, the bigger problem in Turkey is the vulnerability of media owners to government pressure due to their business interests in other fields. They are using journalism as a tool to promote their other interests, Akın said.
The attack on the two Turkish journalists took place just days after Turkey agreed to the adoption of a resolution on the safety of journalists by the UN Human Rights Council with the support of 90 cosponsoring states on Sept. 19. The resolution aims to protect the safety of journalists by sending a message to the states that “there is no excuse for allowing attacks and murders of journalists and media workers to go unpunished.”
Social media has also been abuzz regarding the attack on the two journalists as well.
And here is what Ali Aslan wrote on the incident:
Everything started a week ago. I traveled to New York to cover the deliberations at the 69th United Nations General Assembly, particularly the meetings of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. I called the consulate; however, they told me I was embargoed. It was not a shock; it upset me because the Cihan news agency was also subjected to the same treatment. Erdoğan enforced the embarrassing practice of accreditation for certain media outlets. We also heard that some had taken this practice even further and considered not letting us in the Turkish Center that hosted the Turkish diplomatic mission in New York. But some men of reason prevented this action.
Despite these obstructions, I tried to do my job. Erdoğan had preplanned meetings with leading figures including US Vice President Joe Biden at Peninsula Hotel, where he was staying. My colleague Adem Yavuz Arslan, the Washington representative of the Bugün daily, and I went there. This was not a move to break the embargo because there is no law prohibiting stay at public places such as a hotel lobby unless there is a security problem. Besides, even though he would not speak to us, the president cannot take away our right to talk to other sources. During my stay at the lobby, I received the news from some Muslim American leaders that Erdoğan would meet with President Barack Obama.
Then we witnessed something really strange. All journalists except editors-in-chief who joined the president on his trip were asked to leave the hotel. We realized that a group of correspondents had stayed inside; obviously, Erdoğan’s entourage was trying to send the embargoed journalists away. I was at the top of the stairs to the lobby and Adem Yavuz Arslan was in a lower spot. Because I was a Washington-based journalist, Erdoğan’s team did not notice me. But Arslan was an open target. I saw Erdoğan’s aide Mustafa Varank say something and Arslan was pushed towards the hotel exit. Arslan told me later that it was Varank who instructed the guards to throw him out. Outside, Erdoğan’s aides and guards attacked him.
When I saw this treatment, I decided to stay inside the hotel. A diplomat from the Turkish Consulate approached and politely told me that the delegates did not want me to see there. He added that he did not endorse this treatment but it would be better if I left. I said: “The violations now go beyond press freedom and threaten my personal human rights. I will not compromise on this matter.”
I moved to the café of the hotel. I sat next to my colleague Tolga Tanış from Hürriyet, who was typing a report on his laptop. We were checking through the window to see if Biden’s convoy had left the hotel. A Turkish guard approached us and asked Tanış to leave the hotel. Tanış did not comply. Eventually, the guard discovered I was the one they wanted to leave. I told him the hotel managers should tell me this. Then, a few low-level hotel staff arrived and asked me to leave the hotel. I asked why, and they told me the Turkish security team had issued this demand and I could be forced to leave because I was not a hotel guest. So I ordered a glass of lemonade to qualify as a customer. Well, from a legal perspective, the situation changed. The commercial code would have been violated if they had forced me to leave.
Checking to see when Biden left the hotel took some time. Then a police officer from the New York Police Department (NYPD) approached me. He was originally from Turkey. His name is İlter Aykaç. The hotel management asked for his assistance to ensure that things would not get uglier and that nothing would happen to me because Erdoğan’s aides caused some trouble there a few days ago. I told him about what I had experienced and reminded him of my constitutional rights and freedom. I also added that I would resort to legal options if I was forced to leave. During this conversation, the Turkish guards attempted to take me outside a few times. When I asked them why they would not touch other journalists there, they told me they saw me as a threat. I responded saying, “I have no gun, so how am I a threat?” The American police officer told them to leave, saying I was still talking with him.
After a while, another American cop approached us. He said: “You have already won. You have given your message. We are here to protect you. Allow us to take you outside before something unpleasant happens to you.” In a show of respect for his professional approach, I paid for the lemonade and left the hotel accompanied by the American-Turkish police officer. In the meantime, another NYPD police officer was attempting to calm down Erdoğan’s angry men who were trying to come after me. I heard the police telling a Turk trying to push him that he could not touch him. I was later told that the president’s aide Yiğit Bulut also joined this dispute.
The NYPD police officer walked with me to the other end of the street for my own safety. He told me that I made the right decision, adding that the guards would get away with this because they have diplomatic immunity. In this way, the US met with part of the so-called new Turkey thanks to those who attacked Adem Yavuz Arslan and almost attacked me, too. My poor country. Perhaps we should drink a glass of lemonade to mourn the violation of our rights.