Turkey releases two Vice News reporters – but its message to journalists is all too clear

Don’t even think about reporting this: police in Turkey. Murad Sezer

Perhaps there was a golden age of being a foreign correspondent: a time when courage and determination always brought reward. Danger was part of the job, but the truth, in the end, would always trample tyrants; the pen was mightier than the sword. Or perhaps there was never any such time.

The foreign correspondent, though, often had one advantage: if she or he survived the dangers of war reporting unscathed, the worst that would probably happen would be a brief period in detention, followed by deportation. A ban from the country or territory might follow, but reporters have rarely struggled to make professional capital out of being ejected from bad places.

That comfort has gone, and it’s a matter of great concern for us all. Turkey has now released two of the three of the Vice News team it arrested and imprisoned – Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, whose translator, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, remains in detention – but what happened to them is still deeply worrying for a number of reasons.

Treacherous ground

It further confirms the specific challenges that face anyone trying to report from Turkey. This is hardly news to Turkish journalists. Reporters Without Borders recently wrote of a “poisonous climate” for the media in that country.

In a sense, the authorities’ decision to lock up British journalists might even help to draw wider international attention to the way the news media are treated in Turkey.

This is unlikely. For by locking up the Vice News team – on charges which Vice dismissed as “entirely baseless and absurd” – Turkey has shown that its determination to control media coverage outweighs any concerns it may have about international public opinion.

South-eastern Turkey has never been an easy place for international journalists to operate. I travelled through the region on a number of occasions in the 1990s on my way to assignments in Northern Iraq. The taxi driver who took me to the border frequently reminded me to stress, during our halts at checkpoints, that Iraq was my destination. He did not want to be suspected of helping a foreign journalist to report on the battle between the Turkish security forces and Kurdish separatists.

The Vice Team seem to have fallen foul of their own determination to report just what they found, irrespective of whether it was what the Turkish authorities wanted the world to see.

The real thing

Vice News is sometimes seen as an irreverent newcomer to the international news scene, shaking up the stuffy established names. In fact, some of its best work actually draws its inspiration from a longer, more thoughtful, kind of journalism than the denizens of the social media and soundbite age have always been willing to watch. Take a look at Danny Gold’s stories of West Bank settlers for an example.

Now this newcomer has been on the receiving end of some very old tactics. If you do not like what journalists are saying or doing, either ban them, or lock them up.

You might imagine that in the world of Twitter and YouTube, such tactics would have limited effect. Would that it were so. There is actually a limit to what social media can achieve – especially when those providing material for it may themselves be afraid of detection, or have a particular agenda to push.

Activist material may challenge and complement journalism, but it does not make up for its absence. Reporting of the kind which Hanrahan and Pendlebury were doing is something different: going somewhere, finding something out, telling people. Vice News may be a relatively new organisation, but in terms of preparing journalists to cover conflict, it seems to hold to the same standards as its longer-established rivals. This is old-fashioned journalism, which can all too easily be stopped by old-fashioned locking up.

Feeling the chill

The point of doing this is not simply to gag a particular report. It is to stop reporters from showing up in the first place. Presumably the Turkish authorities hope that arresting and imprisoning this team, however briefly, will put others off travelling to the region.

This would be the most serious consequence of all. More than ever, audiences need to know what is happening in the wider Middle East. Journalists’ critics may argue that their coverage is incomplete; biased; riddled with errors. Yet sometimes they have access which others do not. Unlike diplomats, they can “talk to terrorists” – and few conflicts end without an understanding of what the belligerents want.

In his book The Jihadis Return, Patrick Cockburn argues persuasively that the rise of IS “came as a shock to many in the West” partly because “it was too risky for journalists and outside observers to visit the areas where IS was operating”.

Governments may not always welcome what journalists have to say about them, but all those which claim to support a free press must do more to protect it. Pushing for the release of those jailed for reporting, wherever they are in the world, would be an excellent start.