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Takeover of opposition newspaper is a death warrant for free speech in Turkey

EPA/Selman Gunes

Takeover of opposition newspaper is a death warrant for free speech in Turkey

EPA/Selman Gunes

On Friday March 4, a Turkish court ruled that the country’s biggest daily newspaper, Zaman, would be run by appointed trustees – ostensibly because of its so called “terrorist” activities, but more likely because the publication was linked to US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, an opponent of the government.

Shortly after the court’s decision, police stormed the paper’s Istanbul headquarters in a dramatic midnight raid, firing tear gas and water cannon at the hundreds-strong crowd that formed outside.

The new administrative members dismissed the editor, executive editor and other senior staff, transforming the newspaper’s editorial line, in less than 48 hours, from a rigorous opposition voice into a propaganda mouthpiece for the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Full disclosure: I have written oped pieces for Zaman for the past two years or so – at a rate of about two or three per month. Never at any time was there any attempt to dictate my angle or censor my work, even when – as I did several times – I wrote articles that were critical of Gulen or his movement. Now I feel that the doors of this newspaper are closed – not only for me but also for most of the other academic writers who had used the paper as a vehicle for their opinions.

This episode has not come as a huge surprise to anyone who has been following Turkey’s political scene. While Erdoğan and his AKP party enjoyed close relations with Gulen and his Hizmet educational and religious movement when the party first emerged – and observers believe that Hizmet used his enormous popularity to help Erdogan secure his first term as prime minister in 2002 – things have gone bad between them since 2013.

In 2013 the Turkish judiciary, thought to contain Gülen supporters in senior positions, launched an extensive corruption investigation into Erdogan’s inner circle, prompting Erdogan to accuse Hizmet of trying to launch a civil coup d’état. Since then, Erdoğan has repeatedly accused Gülen of establishing a “parallel structure” within the state by placing his followers in institutions such as the judiciary and the police, and of exerting strong influence through his media. Hizmet has been labelled a “terrorist organisation”.

Fragile freedoms

Zaman is not the first Turkish newspaper to suffer repression under the present administration. Cumhuriyet – another prominent opposition publication – fell foul of the authorities last year. Editor-in-chief, Can Dündar, and the paper’s Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül, were detained in November over a report alleging that Erdoğan’s government tried to ship arms to Islamists in Syria.

When this story appeared, an angry Erdogan threatened them with criminal libel for “targeting state interests by using images contrary to facts”. The pair were jailed pending trial at the end of March. But on February 26, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that their civil rights had been violated and they were released – although they still face trial.

The court’s decision was greeted with joy by a great many Turkish citizens and international rights organisations, such as International Press Freedom Group. But Erdoğan criticised the decision, declaring that:

I keep silent [on] the decision of the Constitutional Court but do not abide by the decision. In my opinion [the] media should not have unlimited freedom. There is no absolute freedom anywhere in the world media as well.

He added: “I need to repeat that this case is not linked to freedom of expression whatsoever… This is an espionage case.”

Welcome to ‘Erdoğanistan’

Free speech certainly is under attack in Erdoğan’s Turkey. Nearly 2,000 journalists, bloggers and ordinary citizens – including high school students – have been prosecuted or are facing charges on accusations of insulting Erdoğan. Additionally, police detained 27 academics over what was referred to as “terror propaganda”. Their crime was to sign a petition – with more than 1,400 others – calling for an end to Turkey’s “deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish people” in south-east Anatolia.

A German edition of Zaman is still being printed. EPA/Bernd von Jutrczenka

With the transformation of Zaman into a government mouthpiece, free speech has become even more of an endangered species in Turkey as journalists are jailed or harassed, websites blocked, media outlets closed down or taken over. The Freedom House report on press freedom for 2015 showed Turkey firmly in the “not free” camp – and henceforth it will be difficult to trust what you read or hear in Turkey’s press. This will have knock-on political effects – it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to build a successful election campaign to unseat Erdoğan and his AKP if this situation continues.

It’s a death warrant for Turkish democracy. The country, once an emerging pluralistic democracy, is becoming one man’s patriarchal realm. Welcome to “Erdoğanistan”.