A court in Istanbul on March 4 appointed trustees to take over the management of the Gulen-linked Zaman newspaper, one of the remaining few independent opposition dailies, adding to concerns over press freedom in Turkey.
Zaman, which claims to have a daily circulation of more than 800,000, has been sharply critical of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
There was no explanation from the court for the seizure of Zaman, but Daily Sabah, a pro-government daily, said the state took control of the critical newspaper because of its alleged links to the so-called “Gulenist Terrorist Organisation”. Erdogan and his allies accuse the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers of infiltrating the country’s police force, media and judiciary, establishing what the president calls “a parallel state” to overthrow him. Gulen denies the charges.
Supporters of the newspaper gathered in front of Zaman’s headquarters in Istanbul on March 4, waving banners and placards that read, “Free Press Cannot Be Silenced”. This is not the first time Zaman has been targeted. In December 2014, Ekrem Dumanli, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, was briefly detained. He later quit his post.
In a related story, police on March 4 detained several executives of Boydak Holding in another crackdown on supporters of Gulen. Boydak Holding's chairman, chief executive officer and two board members were detained over allegations that the company had provided financial support to the Gulenist network.
With the government taking control of Zaman, the question is who will be the next target and a growing number of voices are even asking whether Turkey’s independent/opposition media will disappear altogether soon under government pressure.
Pressure mounting on media
Earlier on March 4, before the authorities had moved to seize control of the newspaper, Today’s Zaman, the group’s English-language publication, issued a statement on its website under the headline, “We are seriously concerned”. The statement reflected the mood in Turkey over freedoms under the AKP rule.
“We are going through the darkest and gloomiest days in terms of freedom of the press,” read the statement. “Intellectuals, businesspeople, celebrities, civil society organizations, media organizations and journalists are being silenced via threats and blackmail.”
Journalists have been detained or jailed for insulting the president, or for publishing reports that the government doesn’t like. In fact, the crackdown on media is part of the government’s growing intolerance of any kind opposition.
As many as 1,845 cases have been opened against people accused of insulting Erdogan since he came to office in 2014. Prosecutors have launched probes against academics for signing a petition that calls for a halt to the military operations in the country’s southeast. Some of them have already lost their jobs, others are living in fear.
The EU warned in its annual progress report on Turkey in November about the overall negative trend in the country's respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights. After several years of progress on freedom of expression, there had been serious backsliding over the past two years, said the report.
In January, Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” report classified Turkey as only “partially free” with a deteriorating outlook, citing renewed violence between the government and Kurdish militants, and intense harassment of opposition members and media outlets by the government and its supporters ahead of the November parliamentary elections.
The offices of the liberal newspaper Hurriyet, owned by Dogan Group, were also attacked by AKP supporters twice in September last year ahead of the November election in which the AKP regained the parliamentary majority it lost in the June poll. Ahmet Hakan, one of the newspaper’s well-known columnists was assaulted; he had his nose and ribs broken.
Dogan Group was handed a tax fine of TRY4.9bn (€1.5bn) in 2009. The conglomerate later sold two of its newspapers, Milliyet and Vatan, in 2011.
In October, the authorities seized companies belonging to Koza-Ipek Group, including Bugun newspapers and the TV station Kanalturk linked to Gulen. Prosecutors appointed a panel of trustees to manage the Koza companies in October, following an investigation into Koza-Ipek over its alleged links to the so-called “Gulenist Terrorist Organisation”.
In a sign of the president’s tightening grip over media institutions, state broadcaster TRT sacked Deniz Ulke Aribogan, an academic who hosted a show on TRT, only three hours after she had criticised the Koza raids on Twitter.
This week, the authorities finally shut down Bugun and Kanalturk, citing constant losses that the Koza Group’s media business is making.
Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, were arrested in November on charges of assisting terrorists, espionage and treason. In May, Cumhuriyet published video images that purportedly showed Turkey’s intelligence service was helping send weapons and ammunitions to Syria. The controversial, high-profile case provoked the wrath of Erdogan, who vowed to punish the journalists.
The pair was released on February 25 after the country’s top court ruled that their rights had been violated. Erdogan was incensed when the top court paved the way for their release. “I don’t respect or accept the constitutional court’s ruling,” the president said, insisting that this was a case of espionage and had nothing to do with press freedom. Dundar and Gul will still stand trial on March 25, and are facing possible life sentences.
A pro-Kurdish TV channel IMC was taken off the air on February 26 during a live interview with Can Dundar and Erdem Gul. A prosecutor asked the country’s satellite provider to drop the TV channel because IMC was making terrorist propaganda in favour of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey has never been a particularly easy place for journalists to work, but the current level of pressure on the country’s media is unprecedented – nothing like this was seen even during the times of military rule, say some veteran journalists. And reports by international organisations provide solid evidence to justify the claim: Turkey is one of the world's top jailers of journalists, according to the Committee to Project Journalists, and is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Freedom Index, down from its 98th place (out of 161 countries) in 2006.
“The authorities also continued to aggressively use the penal code, criminal defamation laws, and the antiterrorism law to crack down on journalists and media outlets,” Freedom House said in its 2015 report, adding that several dozen journalists, including prominent columnists, lost their jobs as a result of such pressure, and those who remained had to operate in a climate of increasing self-censorship and media polarization.