Turkish mayor harasses BBC journalist on Twitter

New York, June 24, 2013–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a spurious and inflammatory Twitter campaign begun Sunday by Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek against a local BBC reporter. Gökçek labeled BBC reporter Selin Girit as a traitor and a spy in apparent disagreement with the BBC’s coverage of anti-government protests that have swept the country.

“It is thoroughly unacceptable for a public official to use the incendiary tactic of calling someone a traitor and inciting followers to follow suit,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “It brings discredit on Melih Gökçek and by extension his party, the AKP, to bring these baseless charges amid such a highly charged atmosphere. We call on the mayor to immediately retract his comments and the AKP to renounce this deplorable campaign.”

On Sunday, Gökçek urged his Twitter followers to condemn Girit, a reporter for BBC’s Turkish service, the Hürriyet Daily News reported. In a series of tweets over several hours, the mayor cheered on his followers and repeatedly accused Girit of treachery.

Gökçek also created a Twitter hashtag in Turkish–#ingiltereadınaajanlıkyapmaselingirit (“Don’t be a spy in the name of England, Selin Girit”)–that he urged his followers to use and popularize on the social networking site, CNN reported. “Keep going, Turkey,” Gökçek told his followers hours after he created the hashtag. “Our Hash Tag is ranked 2th. Must place to number 1. This will be our answer to BBC,” he said, according to CNN.

Within hours, Girit’s supporters mobilized on Twitter and began a campaign against the mayor using the hashtag #provokatörmelihgökçek (“Melih Gökçek is a provocateur”), news reports said. Later that day, the mayor said he would sue anyone who retweeted the provocateur hashtag, news reports said.

The BBC issued a statement today that condemned the action. “A large number of threatening messages have been sent to one of our reporters,” BBC Global News Director Peter Horrocks said in the statement. “It is unacceptable for our journalists to be directly targeted in this way.” Horrocks added that if authorities had complaints about BBC’s output, they should use the properly established channels to lodge them.

BBC has produced extensive on-the-scene coverage of events in Turkey since clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators erupted in late May. When Turkey’s national television channel NTV made a decision in early June to stop transmitting BBC’s current affairs program “Dünya Gündemi” (World Agenda) in an apparent attempt to appease the Turkish government, the BBC announced it was suspending its partnership with the channel. At the time, the BBC said “any interference in [its] broadcasting is totally unacceptable.”

NTV is the only national television channel that carries BBC programming for Turkey. The programming is now available to view on the BBC’s Turkish-language website.

“Turkey’s top government officials have called Twitter a ‘menace,’ yet one of them has used it to target a journalist,” CPJ’s Ognianova said. “We call on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to condemn Mayor Gökçek’s actions, guarantee the safety of Selin Girit, and reaffirm Turkey’s commitment to press freedom.”

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