Sep 1, 2015 ยท 5 minutes

On Monday morning, a court in the city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey officially charged an Iraqi and two British journalists who had been reporting for Vice News. 

Specifically, they stand accused on terror charges for ‘aiding a terrorist organization’ and await trial from jail, in the Kurdistan city of Diyarbakir, an area that has seen a recent rash of violence among Turkish state security forces and Kurdish fighters.

The reporting trio had been covering that escalation for months, capturing street battles and clashes on video and Tweeting urban combat. 

A succession of reports yesterday picked up the detail that the journalists had been accused of working on behalf of Islamic State. Human rights groups paraphrased quotations from unnamed sources, and several outlets ran with it in the headline. The reporters’ lawyer was quoted saying they’d been questioned about connections to Islamic State and Kurdish groups, which is a very important conjunction. Other reports attributed the IS link to an unnamed court or police official, with no quotes ever appearing around the Islamic State reference.

However the IS came to be attached for the US audiences of the Huffington Post, Slate, Al Jazeera America, Quartz...etc -- an opportunistic Turkish court official? A sneering policeman? imprecise or SEO optimized editing? Insidious geopolitical PR? --it was underplayed or omitted by more cautious news organizations. (I'll update as soon as I know more: Vice and Amnesty International have not yet responded to inquiries.) 

If they truly have been charged with aiding Islamic State it would beggar belief. Reporter Jake Hanrahan, for instance, has been consistently covering the increasing aggression of Turkish forces against Kurdish opponents, from the Kurdish parts of town, for months. He’s tweeted about the misdoings of the AK government, including collusion between Turkey and IS, and also about the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide, itself a condemnable offense in Erdogan’s Turkey. Meanwhile, several Turkish reporters have recently been jailed and convicted on charges such as insulting President Recep Erdogan on Twitter and “insulting civil servants over their professional duties.” This spring the same court in Diyarbakir charged and eventually acquitted Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink with publishing pro-Kurdish propaganda. Erdogan’s government has repeatedly shut off access to social networks to stem insecurity.  

As the violence intensified this summer, so did Hanrahan’s and Philip Pendlebury’s videos and reports. The motive for arrest -- journalism critical of the Turkish government -- is common enough, and the Turkish government wouldn't require a top-shelf Palantir software package to establish it.  

The terrorism charge most likely and rationally pertains to the Kurdish PKK and YPG-H fighters whom the reporters had consorted with, and whom Turkey officially recognizes as terroristic organizations.

Of course, Turkey is a NATO country, a longtime US ally in the wars against communism and drugs and terror, and a trade partner and military client state besides. Some may call for the US to condemn the detentions of journalists working for an American publication, but it’s not clear how effective that condemnation would be. In fact, it could do more harm than good.

Last year, the White House condemned the detention of Al Jazeera English journalists in Egypt, who were accused of abetting the Muslim Brotherhood. As in Turkey, Egypt’s current military government can trace a long pedigree of US support, but all three of those cases ended in convictions for “broadcasting false news” anyway, the last two just last week.

Another reason official US involvement could be counterproductive: the Turkish judiciary could just point to official Washington guidance as to how to deal with journalists in conflict zones, made explicit for the first time earlier this summer in a Pentagon Law of War Manual.

Within the nearly 1,200 pages of this operating manual for America-condoned military behavior is a section loaded with vague caveats as to when journalists can be categorized as “unprivileged belligerents” and so criminally prosecuted for journalism.

Moreover, in some cases, the relaying of information (such as providing information of immediate use in combat operations) could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities. Civilian journalists and journalists authorized to accompany the armed forces should not participate in the fighting between the belligerents in this or other ways if they wish to retain protection from being made the object of attack. Like other civilians, civilian journalists who engage in hostilities against a State may be punished by that State after a fair trial.

When Vice News Europe head Kevin Sutcliffe said on Monday that “We continue to work with all relevant authorities to expedite the safe release of our three colleagues and friends," he seemed to invoke, purposefully or not, the language of the Defense manual.

Here’s the DOD on the importance of working with “relevant authorities”:

Journalists and Spying. Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying. A journalist who acts as a spy may be subject to security measures and punished if captured. To avoid being mistaken for spies, journalists should act openly and with the permission of relevant authorities. Presenting identification documents, such as the identification card issued to authorized war correspondents or other appropriate identification, may help journalists avoid being mistaken as spies.

Again, the original reason given for the Vice journalists’ arrests was lack of documentation. The elevation to terrorism charges, and the invocation of Islamic State if that can be believed authentic, may be a cynical play by Turkish authorities to further ingratiate themselves with the new Washingtonian prerogative:

Security Precautions and Journalists. States may need to censor journalists’ work or take other security measures so that journalists do not reveal sensitive information to the enemy. Under the law of war, there is no special right for journalists to enter a State’s territory without its consent or to access areas of military operations without the consent of the State conducting those operations. 

Conveniently, the Turkish government has recently made loud noises about confronting the IS enemy, despite evidence that they’ve been less than aggressive towards IS during that group’s rise and subsequent battles with Kurds on the Syrian side of the border.

Of course, international treaties such as the Universal Declarations of Human Rights flatly oppose treating journalists this way, but Erdogan’s Turkey knowns that the way to America’s heartfelt support is through its military objectives.

The war on terror continues.