Turkish forces seals off critic newspaper, Zaman, as press crackdown grows larger
Backed by a court order, the Turkish authorities moved on Friday to seize Zaman, the country’s most widely circulated newspaper, in the latest crackdown by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on freedom of the press.
The seizing of the newspaper also highlighted the government’s building campaign against those it perceives to be its two greatest enemies: opposition journalists and the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric affiliated with the newspaper who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Mr. Gulen was once an ally of Mr. Erdogan’s but is now a bitter enemy.
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As news of the takeover became public Friday afternoon, supporters began gathering in front of the newspaper’s offices in Istanbul, and employees locked a door to the building. In a live-stream broadcast on the newspaper’s website, supporters were seen chanting, “Free press cannot be silenced.” Some carried Turkish flags and banners emblazoned with, “Do not touch my newspaper.” Columnists from the paper were also seen addressing the crowd.
Later Friday night, Turkish police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd and forcibly enter the building.
“We are going through the darkest and gloomiest days in terms of freedom of the press, which is a major benchmark for democracy and the rule of law,” read a statement issued by the editors of Today’s Zaman, an English-language sister publication to Zaman. “Intellectuals, businesspeople, celebrities, civil society organizations, media organizations and journalists are being silenced via threats and blackmail.”
The move to seize Zaman and put it under the administration of a court-appointed panel of trustees emphasized what critics say is a rapid deterioration of free-speech rights under the Islamist government of Mr. Erdogan, who was prime minister for more than a decade before being elected president in 2014.
The executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, said in a statement on Friday, “Rather than taking aggressive action to undermine the newspapers, Turkish authorities should be fulfilling their constitutional obligation to defend press freedom and rights of the journalists.”
The crackdown on expression comes amid a growing sense that Turkey, once seen as a bastion of stability in a hostile region, is being enveloped by instability.
A war with Kurdish separatists has turned cities in the southeast into rubble. The country is straining under the weight of more than two million refugees from Syria. And Islamic State militants, who have used Turkey to transit fighters and weapons to Syria and Iraq, have carried out deadly attacks on Turkish soil.
As Turkey faces its domestic demons, critics say the government has been emboldened to target its enemies within the country because the European Union and NATO allies, in particular, have looked the other way as they seek Turkey’s support to contain the refugee crisis and pacify the raging civil war in Syria.
“This pattern is appalling, and Turkey is galloping towards an authoritarian regime full speed ahead,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a prominent journalist who lost her column last year at the daily Milliyet under government pressure. “Unfortunately, the world, in particular the E.U., remains silent. The government here can sense the vulnerability in the West, especially since the beginning of the refugee crisis, and is pushing the boundaries to consolidate its power.”
Ms. Aydintasbas added, using an acronym for the Islamic State, “Erdogan knows the West is vulnerable because of ISIS and the refugees and he is going to use this as much as he can.”
Always thin-skinned, Mr. Erdogan has taken increasingly harsh steps in recent years to muzzle his critics. Dozens of journalists perceived as critical of the government have lost their jobs as officials have put pressure on their bosses. Academics have been targeted for speaking out against the government’s military campaign against Kurdish insurgents in the southeast.
At the same time, the justice system has charged Turks of all stripes — authors, journalists, cartoonists, politicians and ordinary citizens — with “insulting the president.” All told, more than 1,800 insult cases have been brought, the country’s justice minister revealed this week.
In some cases, such as with Zaman, and a broader crackdown on Mr. Gulen’s followers in business and the judiciary and the police, the government has applied the country’s antiterrorism laws.
When Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials A.K.P., rose to power in 2002, one of its important allies was Mr. Gulen, a powerful, moderate cleric. The A.K.P. and Mr. Gulen’s followers in the police and judiciary cooperated in a series of trials against military officers on coup charges — later determined to be based on fabricated evidence — that ultimately removed the military’s influence over politics.
But in late 2013, the groups had a falling-out over a number of issues, including the government’s handling of protests in the summer of 2013 and Turkey’s aggressive policy of supporting rebels in the Syrian civil war. Another point of friction was the growing hostility between Turkey and Israel, a country that the Gulenists were more sympathetic to than was Mr. Erdogan.
At the end of 2013, a corruption inquiry targeted Mr. Erdogan and his inner circle, a challenge that Mr. Erdogan survived by removing police officers and judges. Since then, the two sides have waged an all-out war in which Mr. Erdogan has had the upper hand.
The Gulen movement has been on the defensive, accused of being a terrorist organization that is plotting a coup. Its members have been subject to arrests, intimidation and court cases, while Mr. Erdogan has seemingly become more powerful. He has risen to the presidency, while his party, in national elections in November, secured four more years in power.
Recently, there was one glimmer of hope for Turkey’s beleaguered journalists. Turkey’s highest court issued a ruling that freed two newspaper editors who were jailed on espionage charges. The editors, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, of the daily Cumhuriyet, are being prosecuted for reporting on alleged weapons transfers by Turkish intelligence agents to rebels in Syria. The case is proceeding, but the editors were released from jail after the court determined that their constitutional rights had been violated.
Mr. Dundar, in a text message, said Friday of the Zaman case: “It is the sign that fear has entirely grown in the halls of state. They do not have tolerance for even the tiniest criticism. But it is impossible to silence an entire society by disregarding the law. Turkey would not keep quiet.”
Mr. Erdogan responded to that court ruling by saying that he did not respect it, and throughout the crackdown on Gulen-affiliated media — which did not begin with Friday’s seizure of Zaman, but has been continuing — government officials have framed it not as an assault on freedom of the press but as a determined effort to destroy a group it sees as an enemy of the Turkish state.
Speaking on local television Friday, Mehmet Metiner, a lawmaker with Mr. Erdogan’s party, said, “We will go on fighting against the Fethullah terror organization, and their extensions in the media and business world within the range of the law.”