Story highlights

Two British journalists and their guide, all working for Vice News, are charged in Turkey

They're accused of "knowingly and willfully helping the armed terrorist organization," a semiofficial news agency reports

Vice News says the journalists were unjustly detained; rights groups call for their immediate release

Istanbul CNN  — 

A Turkish court has charged two Vice News journalists and their “fixer” with a terrorism offense, several days after they were detained in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, a heavily Kurdish area.

The three, held last Thursday, were charged late Monday with “knowingly and willfully helping the armed terrorist organization without being a part of its hierarchical structure,” according to Turkey’s semiofficial Anadolu news agency. It didn’t name the organization they were allegedly aiding.

The reporters’ treatment has raised questions about the Turkish government’s commitment to freedom of expression.

Vice named the two British journalists as Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury but did not identify the fixer – a journalist acting as a translator and guide.

However, he was named by Anadolu as Mohammed Ismael Rasool.

“Today the Turkish government has leveled baseless and alarmingly false charges of ‘working on behalf of a terrorist organization’ against three Vice News reporters, in an attempt to intimidate and censor their coverage,” Kevin Sutcliffe, Vice’s head of news programming in Europe, said in an online statement.

“Prior to being unjustly detained, these journalists were reporting and documenting the situation in the southeastern Turkish province of Diyarbakir.”

The journalists’ driver was also detained but has since been freed, said Vice News, a U.S.-based news outlet.

Anadolu reported that the prosecutor’s office started an investigation after a tipoff that three foreign journalists were recruiting for terror organizations, specifically ISIS. However, the investigation is now leaning toward a relationship with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, according to Anadolu. Turkey and the United States list the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Anadolu said that a police record includes footage of members of the PKK’s youth wing, YDG-H, with weapons, Molotov cocktails and homemade bombs, as well as interviews with masked YDG-H members. Police also found a day planner with explanations and translations of PKK structures, it said.

Hanrahan told police that the day planner included his research as a reporter, and Pendlebury said that he’d shot footage as a war reporter but that he did not know that the people in the footage were associated with any organization, according to Anadolu.

Freedom of speech urged

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Diyarbakir authorities to release the trio immediately and allow them to resume their work.

“The renewed clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish separatists in the volatile southeast are of public interest to both domestic and international audiences,” said Nina Ognianova, the committee’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator.

“Authorities ought to protect, not gag journalists on the job.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists said its research indicated that broadly worded anti-terror laws in Turkey have allowed authorities to conflate the coverage of banned groups and sensitive topics with anti-state activity.

“Talking to all parties involved in a conflict is just good journalism,” Ognianova said. “Being ‘in close contact’ with their sources is what reporters do.”

Freedom of speech group PEN International warned that the journalists’ detention was part of a worrying trend in Turkey, particularly with regard to coverage of the banned PKK and tensions in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish areas.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to carry out journalistic duties in Turkey,” said Zeynep Oral, president of PEN Turkey.

“In a period of uncertainty, both in the country and in the region, we are in the greatest need of freedom of expression and the right to know. We ask for justice and the immediate release of journalists doing their jobs.”

United States: Uphold democratic values

Rights group Amnesty International also called on Turkish authorities to release the journalists immediately.

Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher, slammed their detention as “yet another example of the Turkish authorities suppressing the reporting of stories that are embarrassing to them.”

The UK Foreign Office said it was providing consular assistance and was “in touch with the relevant authorities” after the arrest of the two British nationals in Diyarbakir.

Asked about the British journalists’ situation, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “Freedom of expression, including for journalists, and due process are key elements in every healthy democracy and are enshrined, in fact, in the Turkish Constitution as well as Turkey’s (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) commitments and Turkey’s international human rights obligations.

“So as Turkey’s friend and NATO ally, we urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold universal democratic values, including due process, freedom of expression, as well as access to media and information.”

CNN’s Zeynep Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. CNN’s Khushbu Shah and Alexander Felton contributed to this report.