What the Arrest of Two Journalists Tells Us About Turkey—and Vice

Accusations of terrorism are a window into how the Turkish government tries to intimidate reporters, but also how a media bad boy is maturing.

Kurdish fighters involved in clashes with the Turkish government near Diyarbakir (Sertac Kayar / Reuters)

Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presidency, Turkish journalists have increasingly been badgered, intimidated, threatened, and punished. Now, however, the Turkish government is going after two foreign journalists.

Britons Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, working for Vice News, were originally detained in southeast Turkey, along with a translator and a driver, for not having proper identification. But now they’re being accused of “engaging in terror activity” and having connections to ISIS.

It’s not difficult to see why the Turkish government might not want journalists in the area. Kurdish fighters, some backed by the U.S., have been battling ISIS in Iraq for months. While Turkey opposes ISIS, it’s also terrified of emboldened Kurds pushing for an autonomous state in the region. For decades, Ankara has fought a protracted war against Kurdish guerrilla groups in southeastern Turkey. After long trying to avoid being drawn into the conflict against ISIS, Turkey, a U.S. ally, has begun to take action, but it’s fighting against both ISIS and the Kurds, a strange case where, for the Turkish government, the enemy of my enemy might still be my enemy.

And now it seems like the Vice reporters have been caught in the center of it. So far, there appears to be no hard evidence on offer connecting them to ISIS. They have denied any connection, and Vice released a statement labeling the accusations as “baseless and alarmingly false charges.” Based on what’s known right now, the Turkish arrest seem foolish and paranoid at best, and like a dangerous intrusion on journalism at worst.

It is also an example of how Vice has changed over the years. In a famous moment in the documentary Page One, about the media desk at The New York Times, the late great David Carr dresses down a team of Vice journalists who he thinks have demeaned his paper’s reporting. “Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fuckin’ safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn't give you the right to insult what we do,” Carr rasps. The Vice team, chastened, apologizes.

Carr was right—then. But Vice’s coverage of ISIS has demonstrated that whatever other charges may be levied at Vice, it is taking foreign coverage more seriously these days. Yes, there’s sometimes an exaggerated, performative bad-assery to Vice productions, but their reporting from the Middle East has been essential. Most notably, in 2014, Vice released a five-part documentary series from the ISIS capital, Raqqa, an unprecedented look into the terror group’s heartland. The series won a Peabody Award.

But any Americans who might look at the Turkish arrests with a certain smugness about U.S. protections for the press might be well-advised to tread carefully. In a post for The Atlantic in October, Andrew F. March, a political scientist at Yale, warned that American law was written so broadly that Vice could be prosecuted for giving aid to terrorists with the documentary:

That decision means, for example, that Jimmy Carter and his Carter Center could be in violation of federal law for giving peacemaking advice to groups on the State Department’s FTO list. Any private individual who coordinates with a group on that list, or a group that the individual ought to know engages in terrorism, with the purposes of providing it advice or assistance—even on how to pursue an end to its campaign of violence—is guilty of a crime by the logic of the Roberts Court.

As March acknowledged at the time, it was unlikely that Vice’s journalists would be prosecuted. But of course, that’s not much protection: The question is whether or not they could be. Journalism should not be a crime, whether that’s in Tehran, Turkey, or Tennessee.