Turkish journalists face abuse and threats online as trolls step up attacks

Turkey has shut more than 160 media outlets and arrested about 100 journalists since a failed coup attempt in July. But that is just half the story.

Away from shuttered news rooms and busy police stations, trolls have intensified a campaign to intimidate journalists online, hacking social media accounts, threatening physical and sexual abuse, and orchestrating “virtual lynch mobs” of pro-government voices to silence criticism.

Since January this year the International Press Institute (IPI) has logged more than 2,000 cases of online abuse, death threats, threats of physical violence, sexual abuse, smear campaigns and hacking against journalists in Turkey.

The campaign has been less remarked upon than the official onslaught against the media, which continued this week with the closure of 10 newspapers, two news agencies and three magazines.

But its insidious nature is no less unsettling. Female journalists suffer the most, with trolls using hundreds of accounts to brand them “sluts” or “whores” just for having their work published.

When women are “criticised it is never without a sexual connotation … They are bitches, they haven’t been fucked properly. That is why they are acting [and writing] in a particular way,” says Gülsin Harman, who has been coordinating the IPI’s project On the Line.

Turkey’s macho culture has exacerbated the reaction to female writers, according to Emre Kızılkaya, one of the first journalists to write about the trolling. He says: “During the anti-government protests in Gezi park [in June 2013] they were being harassed and targeted in really nasty ways: they got death threats and and rape threats.”

The IPI says it has also seen cases of serious intimidation against pro-Kurdish journalists and Turkish citizens who work for international media outlets.

Trolls, often linked to the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), have been a feature of Turkey’s online space since the protests in Gezi park.

Journalists have become accustomed to consistent harassment from “AKtrolls”, as they are known online, but after a failed coup attempt in July – followed by an extreme government crackdown on the media – the abuse has worsened.