NEW YORK -- Two Vice News journalists and their fixer were charged Monday with "engaging in terror activity" on behalf of the Islamic State, or ISIS, allegations the media company quickly dismissed as an attempt to censor its reporting.
"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," said Kevin Sutcliffe, head of news programming in Europe, in a statement. "Prior to being unjustly detained, these journalists were reporting and documenting the situation in the southeastern Turkish province of Diyarbakir."
"Vice News condemns in the strongest possible terms the Turkish government's attempts to silence our reporters who have been providing vital coverage from the region," Sutcliffe added. "We continue to work with all relevant authorities to expedite the safe release of our three colleagues and friends."
Vice News has become known for reporting in some of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the world, including getting unprecedented access last summer to part of Islamic State-controlled Syria. The three journalists -- Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, of the U.K., and an unnamed journalist fixer -- were detained Thursday in a predominately Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey. Reuters reported that the journalists, who were "filming clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants," did not have government accreditation.
Hanrahan was tweeting images from southeastern Turkey the day before his arrest.
The group's driver was let go without charges, AFP reported Monday.
The Turkish government is known to level terrorism charges in attempts to silence the press. Earlier this month, the Turkish government accused 18 editors at nine news outlets of supporting terrorism.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed Turkey's press is the freest in the world, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Turkey was the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2012 and 2013, and ranked near the top in 2014.
Several advocacy groups called on the Turkish government to release the Vice journalists soon after reports of their arrests surfaced last week.
Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's Turkey researcher, said in a statement that the arrests were "yet another example of the Turkish authorities suppressing the reporting of stories that are embarrassing to them."
"It is completely proper that journalists should cover this important story," Gardner said. "The decision to detain the journalists was wrong, while the allegation of assisting Islamic state is unsubstantiated, outrageous and bizarre."
Nina Ognianova, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said "authorities ought to protect, not gag journalists on the job."
Asked about the charges at Monday's State Department press briefing, spokesman Mark Toner said that "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 OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] commitments and Turkey's international human rights obligations."
"So as Turkey's friend and NATO ally," Toner continued, "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."
This story has been updated with comment from a State Department spokesman.