Rohat Aktaş, a news editor for the Kurdish-language daily Azadiya Welat, was last heard from on January 30, 2016, in the southeastern Turkish town of Cizre. On February 24, local media reported that his body had been identified using DNA testing. The details of his death are unknown.
Aktaş was shot in the arm on January 22 while reporting on efforts to help those wounded during clashes between Kurdish separatists and Turkish forces, his editor, Zeynel Bulut, told CPJ. Turkish forces fired on those trying to help the wounded, according to Bulut and news reports. CPJ was not able to verify this claim as journalists were barred from the area.
Aktaş took refuge in a basement, where he became trapped with dozens of others, Bulut said. “He called his family two days after he was shot and said he was wounded in the left arm,” Bulut told CPJ.
The Azadiya Welat newsroom lost communication with Aktaş in late January, Bulut said. On February 4, Bulut told CPJ that that the newspaper had had no communication with Aktaş for five days.
Cirze is one of several areas in Turkey’s southeast where security forces, backed by tanks, fought militants linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The city was under 24-hour curfew from December 14, 2015, to March 2, 2016, news reports said.
Kurdish groups claimed that dozens of people were burned to death in Cizre basements–claims that were not possible to verify because journalists were barred from the area. The curfew was kept in place for three weeks after February 11, when officials declared the end of military operations in the town, The Associated Press reported.
Pro-opposition and pro-Kurdish media reported that at the time government forces denied medical treatment to those injured in clashes in Cizre. Pro-government media claimed that the people trapped in the city were terrorists, and that separatists had prevented ambulances from helping the injured.
In May, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said he had received a succession of alarming reports alleging human rights abuses by Turkish security forces in the southeast, including the shooting of unarmed civilians by snipers, and “reports quoting witnesses and relatives in Cizre which suggest that more than 100 people were burned to death as they sheltered in three different basements that had been surrounded by security forces.” He urged Turkish authorities to allow independent investigators, including U.N. staff, unimpeded access to the area.
Aktaş, 19, was working as “responsible news editor” at the time of his death. Bulut, his editor, told CPJ that those who fill this role are legally responsible for the contents of the newspaper, alongside the journalists whose bylines are shown, and staff takes turns filling the role to mitigate the risk to each employee. Azadiya Welat has for years been the subject of frequent judicial harassment.
On Aktaş’s Twitter account, which has since been suspended, the journalist’s profile picture portrayed him seated with a rifle propped against his chest and shoulders. Azadiya Welat told CPJ that Aktaş was not a fighter and was on assignment in Cizre to cover the clashes. CPJ also spoke with his colleagues, other journalists from the region, and press freedom activists who frequently visit southeastern Turkey. All said they had no reason to believe that Aktaş was a fighter.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This text has been updated to correct the spelling of Cizre throughout.