The authoritarian regime of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ran surveillance on a critical journalist who lives in Sweden, published secretly taken photos of him and revealed his home address as part of an ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation.
The surveillance photos and private information about Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, who lives in Stockholm, was leaked to the Sabah newspaper, a government mouthpiece owned and operated by President Erdoğan's family.
The article, full of defamation, smears, lies and slander, described the daily routine of the journalist, who was apparently tracked by agents of Turkish intelligence agency MIT and photographed while waiting for a bus. He was then followed home.
The daily published a picture of Bozkurt's apartment building and described the dirt road he takes to get to his home after getting off the bus.
Bozkurt, who was attacked by three unidentified men in September 2020 in front of his previous home in a Stockholm suburb, had to move to a safe location. His address and private information were kept secret under Sweden's laws protecting vulnerable persons. During the attack, he suffered scrapes and bruises to his face, arms and legs and was treated at a local hospital and then released.
By disclosing the protected address of the journalist and spying on his daily routine, Turkish intelligence agents and its operatives at Sabah broke several Swedish laws. Bozkurt filed a complaint against the people who were involved in disclosing confidential information and asked Swedish authorities to investigate Serhat Albayrak, owner of the Sabah daily, and his employees Abdurrahman Şimşek and Çağri Oğuz, for violating Swedish laws on refugee spying and revealing a protected address as well as those Turkish intelligence operatives and assets who aided and abetted them during surveillance and intelligence gathering activities on Swedish soil.
"This is part of an intimidation campaign to send a chilling message, not just to me but to all journalists: 'Shut up or else'," Bozkurt said in comments to the Middle East Forum on the recent surveillance. "Erdoğan's intrusive spying has compromised my security and put my family's safety at risk. But I refuse to be intimidated, and I will continue my work," he added.
Bozkurt, director of the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network, a non-profit organization based in Stockholm, and a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, has long been in the crosshairs of the Turkish government and its proxies because of critical articles and research papers that exposed the Erdoğan government's links to jihadist groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
He had to flee Turkey in 2016 to escape wrongful imprisonment on fabricated charges and sought shelter in Sweden, a country with a robust tradition of protecting freedom of expression and the press.
The Erdoğan government did not leave him alone and continued the harassment and intimidation campaign against him in Sweden as well.
In December 2016 Cem Küçük, a government propagandist with close ties to the Turkish interior and justice ministers, called for MIT to assassinate Bozkurt. Speaking on TGRT TV, a loyalist government media outlet, Küçük said Bozkurt's home address in Stockholm was known by Turkish authorities and demanded the "extermination" of the journalist.
"No need to beat around the bush anymore. Where they [critical journalists] live is known, including their addresses abroad. Let's see what happens if several of them get exterminated. How terrified would they be if you put a bullet into the heads of some [critical] journalists," he said.
Speaking about Bozkurt, Küçük said that "his home address is known by the [Turkish] state," prompting the other guest, Fuat Uğur, to say, "They mustn't be able to live comfortably wherever they are." In response Küçük, said: "Right. Kill three or five of them and see what happens. Turkish intelligence agency MIT now has the authority [to carry out killings] abroad."
Küçük was investigated in the past over Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force activities in Turkey, and Bozkurt's writings on the Quds Force's clandestine operations apparently bothered him.
On August 12, 2017 Gülsen Çiğel, who was the then-chair of Erdoğan proxy group the Union of International Democrats (formerly the Union of European Turkish Democrats), revealed the area Bozkurt was living in and provoked people, saying: "How can he live in an area where that many Turks live? You should spit in his face." Çiğel, who was using the fake name Gülsen Vatansever, was questioned by Swedish police for her threatening remarks that incited violence against the journalist.
Mesut Hakkı Caşın, the Turkish president's advisor on security and foreign policy, openly threatened Bozkurt with murder on live TV, broadcast by a national television network, saying Turkish intelligence would find him and feed him to the sharks.
Speaking during a debate program on a CNN Türk on January 15, 2021, a pro-government media outlet, Caşın targeted Bozkurt and said: "Turkish national intelligence will find him, I'll tell you that. I don't know whether MIT will feed him to the fish or the sharks, but traitors always ultimately get their punishment," he said.
Caşın, a 65-year-old professor and former military officer, is a member of Turkey's Presidential Security and Foreign Policy Board advising Erdoğan on strategic matters.
Turkey has already issued five arrest warrants for Bozkurt, most on defamation charges, and he is facing an ongoing criminal case with the Turkish president as a plaintiff because of an article he wrote that exposed a convicted jihadist's links to the government and to Erdoğan himself.
President Erdoğan has filed a record number of insult and defamation lawsuits against journalists who write or speak critically of him or his government and has branded them as terrorists and traitors on bogus charges.
Bozkurt's investigative articles have exposed the Turkish intelligence agency's links to armed jihadist groups including al-Qaeda and ISIS, revealed the corrupt schemes of President Erdoğan's family and his government's clandestine business with the Iranian regime and the Quds Force.
He also exposed the real culprits who radicalized a 22-year-old police officer, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, who gunned down Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in an art gallery in Ankara in what is supposed to be the most secure part of Turkey's capital city, in December 2016. The prosecutor specially selected by the government to run the probe into the murder covered up the killer's tracks that led to clerics, some on the government payroll, and al-Qaeda operatives who were protected by Turkish authorities.
In order to undermine the credibility of Bozkurt's work and deflect the public's attention away from the masterminds behind the assassination, the Erdoğan government's propaganda machine made up lies, including that the killer stayed in Bozkurt's apartment in Ankara and that he directed the murder, became a suspect and was indicted. Even the loyalist prosecutor whose job it was to suppress evidence that pointed to the real masterminds did not include these lies in the indictment. Bozkurt wrote extensively on the defamation campaign pursued by the Erdoğan government in the Karlov murder case.
In the last decade freedom of the press has worsened in Turkey, with blatant abuse of the criminal justice system to prosecute reporters and imprison them on fabricated charges of terrorism, espionage and defamation. Last week the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) warned in a monitoring report that freedom of the media remains a challenge in Turkey.
"The Assembly notes that long-standing issues remain problematic, such as attacks against journalists, the control of media by the State, the use or withholding of advertising funds as a means to marginalise and criminalise media critical of the regime," PACE said.
Turkey is ranked 149th among 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom's "Jailed and Wanted Journalists in Turkey" database, 161 journalists are behind bars in Turkey and 167 are wanted and either in exile or at large.