Ankara wants news outlet of Sweden-based Turkish journalists shut down for NATO bid approval

Turkey's Foreign Affairs Committee Fuat Oktay (C) chairs a committee session at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara on November 16, 2023 on Sweden's NATO aspirations. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP)

A news outlet based in Sweden has found itself in the crosshairs of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government due to its critical reporting, and with the protracted negotiations between Turkey and Sweden concerning Ankara’s endorsement of the Nordic nation’s NATO membership bid, Ankara has discovered an unlikely opportunity to exert pressure on Stockholm to get what it wants, Turkish Minute‘s Bünyamin Tekin reported.

Nordic Monitor, an investigative news website based in Stockholm, is managed by two exiled Turkish journalists.

A request for the closure of the news website was apparently raised during confidential meetings between the Turkish and Swedish delegations, indicated by almost an admission-like statement by Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Burak Akçapar during deliberations at the Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which was tasked with reviewing Sweden’s NATO accession protocol on October 25.

“The Nordic Monitor issue is a serious matter. … Naturally, the closure of this is part of, and will continue to be part of, the negotiations we conduct with Sweden,” Akçapar informed lawmakers on November 16 while providing background information on the ongoing talks with the Swedish delegation to meet Ankara’s demands, according to the publicly available minutes of the session cited by Nordic Monitor.

Nordic Monitor, established in Sweden by two Stockholm-based Turkish journalists, Abdullah Bozkurt and Levent Kenez, in 2019, is dedicated to in-depth coverage of Turkey through investigative journalism. The platform says it exposes the wrongdoings of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Bozkurt and Kenez are members of the Swedish Union of Journalists (Journalistförbundet), a professional organization dedicated to promoting press freedom and advocating for the rights of journalists in Sweden.

Turkey and Hungary are the only NATO members that have yet to ratify Sweden’s bid, more than 18 months after it applied for membership.

The Turkish Parliament in November started to debate Sweden’s application to join after President Erdoğan launched the process following a deal at a NATO summit in July.

Sweden and Nordic neighbor Finland had dropped their long-standing policies of non-alignment and applied to join the US-led military alliance in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Finland became NATO’s 31st member in April.

“On the day Sweden applied for NATO membership, Abdullah and I talked about the possibility that we could come up in the negotiations to ratify Stockholm’s membership application,” Kenez told Turkish Minute.

“So this was not a surprise for us,” he added.

Kenez said the Turkish government wants them silenced for exposing its dirty laundry, emphasizing that he and Bozkurt have been targeted by Ankara and pro-government media before.

Nordic Monitor previously published documents that have shown that numerous Turkish ambassadors conducted comprehensive information-gathering operations on unsuspecting critics of Erdoğan in foreign countries and then reported the results to headquarters in Ankara, resulting in various punitive measures against critics and opponents, even those in exile, as well as their family members in Turkey.

The Turkish government had previously filed an extradition request for Kenez, but in December 2021, the Swedish Supreme Court rejected the Turkish government’s appeal. The court ruled that Kenez’s journalistic work is not considered a criminal offense in Sweden and rejected the terrorism charges brought against the journalist by Turkey.

The Turkish authorities have issued several arrest warrants for Bozkurt over a number of articles he wrote for Nordic Monitor. He is facing criminal proceedings in Turkey for insulting President Erdoğan.

Bozkurt was attacked by three unidentified men in September 2020 in front of his home in a Stockholm suburb and had moved to a safe location. Sweden’s laws protecting vulnerable persons kept his address and private information secret. During the attack, he suffered scrapes and bruises to his face, arms and legs and was treated at a local hospital and then released.

On October 10, 2022 the pro-government Sabah daily published photos of Bozkurt, which, according to Nordic Monitor were passed on to the newspaper by Turkey’s intelligence agency. His until-then-secret home address was revealed as a continuation of an ongoing Turkish government strategy aimed at harassing and intimidating the journalist. A few weeks later, Sabah published photos of Kenez as well.

Many journalists are imprisoned in Turkish jails because their work is seen by the government as a threat to Turkey’s constitutional order and the fight against terrorism. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), independent media outlets in Turkey have been decimated by closures, takeovers and the forcing of many journalists into exile or out of the profession.

In 2014 the Turkish government launched a crackdown on journalists and media companies following corruption cases that implicated Erdoğan, his family members and close associates. The crackdown led to the closure of almost 200 media outlets and the imprisonment of hundreds of journalists. Many journalists were forced to go into exile to escape unjust imprisonment, including Nordic Monitor editors Bozkurt and Kenez, who sought asylum in Sweden in 2016.

“It seems that Nordic Monitor and its editors will remain in the crosshairs of the Turkish authorities, who have already taken various measures to pressure the exiled journalists into abandoning their profession and ceasing to write articles critical of the Erdogan government,” a report on the Nordic Monitor website reads.

Kenez adds that they have not been pressured or contacted by the Swedish authorities in this matter.

Rights groups routinely accuse Turkey of undermining media freedom by arresting journalists and shutting down critical media outlets, especially since a failed coup in 2016.

Turkey is ranked 165th in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2023 World Press Freedom Index, among 180 countries, not far from North Korea, which occupies the bottom of the list.

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