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Case of Vice reporters underlines Turkish crackdown on Internet freedom

Two British reporters freed, but Iraqi stringer remains in jail for downloading same encryption software used by ISIL

Two British reporters with Vice News charged with “deliberately aiding an armed organization” in Turkey, because their Iraqi colleague allegedly downloaded encryption software on his computer, were released from jail Thursday after a week in custody, a Vice spokesman told Al Jazeera.

Rights groups welcomed the release of the reporters, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, who have since been transferred to a deportation center before leaving the country. But concern has been raised over the continued detention of their colleague Mohammed Ismael Rasool, who had been working with them in covering the sensitive Kurdish PKK insurgency in southeastern Turkey. Critics of the government in Ankara said the case underlines a wider trend in security-minded Turkey: the evocation of terrorism as a cover to crack down on media and Internet freedoms.

Journalist Mohammed Ismael Rasool, who remains incarcerated in Turkey for using an encryption system used by ISIL.
Vice News

Activists say the Vice arrests are merely the highest-profile example of Ankara's chilling media coverage of its crackdown on the PKK, which has been targeted with hundreds of Turkish airstrikes in recent weeks. The three journalists were arrested Aug. 27 in the southeastern town of Diyarbakir, a Kurdish-dominated city where the PKK — which Washington, Brussels and Ankara all consider a terrorist organization — is active.

"To me, it seems like an attempt by the government to get international journalists away from the area of conflict,” said Tahir Elci, the head of the Diyarbakir lawyers' association. "These people have obviously been in contact with YDG-H [PKK youth wing] members because of their jobs, because they are covering stories. This might not have been welcomed by the security forces."

In a further twist Wednesday, a Turkish official told Al Jazeera that the three were being held because Rasool used the same “complex encryption system” favored by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters to escape government monitoring of their online communications. Turkish Internet users of all stripes have increasingly taken to such software, especially the U.S. Navy–developed Tor, which bounces data across multiple encrypted relay points, allowing users to circumvent Turkey's frequent bans on Twitter and Facebook and remain anonymous.

“Turkish authorities are very pragmatic in stigmatizing encryption,” said Erkan Saka, a professor of communications at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “They want a media blackout in the region,” he said, and “they know that if they mention [ISIL], there will be backing from international circles.”

But Saka added, “The criminalization of encryption is more of a global phenomenon,” noting that these tools are widely used across the Middle East and have allowed activists to organize civil unrest (and in some cases, allowed armed groups to evade government surveillance). In Syria, for instance, there have long been reports of security forces arresting and torturing people who have downloaded Tor on their computers, inferring suspicious, anti-regime activity.

Even in the West, leaders have called for wider surveillance and censorship of ISIL propaganda on social media platforms, which allow the group to attract thousands of Western recruits. Speaking to Parliament in July, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron hinted that encryption was part of the problem, saying that the West cannot "leave a safe space — a new means of communication — for terrorists to communicate with each other." Others have argued that companies like Facebook and Twitter should abandon their privacy policies in extreme cases, allowing intelligence agencies to probe the accounts of ISIL supporters.

"The question is, Are we going to allow a means of communications which it simply isn’t possible to read?" said Cameron. "My answer to that question is no, we must not."

That effort is more advanced in Turkey, which consistently ranks as one of the worst countries in the developed world for press freedom. It has regularly banned Twitter and YouTube, most recently after the platforms were used to circulate images of a Turkish prosecutor held captive by leftist fighters with a gun to his head (he was later executed), since those sites tend not to cooperate with government requests for censorship. According to Facebook, which has a policy of geo-blocking pages that break local laws, Turkey is one of the leading requesters of these blocks in the world.

On a wider level, Internet freedom advocates say that encryption tools should not fall casualty to global fears of ISIL.

“The latest move by the Turkish authorities is simply one more attempt to paint crypto as inherently suspicious, perhaps with a view to making its use explicitly illegal at some point,” wrote Glyn Moody, an editor at technology blog Ars Technica.

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