The Death Blow to Turkey’s Media

As of today, Turkey's largest-circulation newspaper — long a government critic — is no more.

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Earlier today, a Turkish court gave the green light to a government-approved takeover of media group Feza Journalism. The company owns Zaman, the country’s largest-circulation newspaper, and one of its top private news agencies. Crowds have gathered outside Zaman’s headquarters in Istanbul to protect the journalists from eviction by the police, who are even now attempting to clear a path through them with water cannons. But if previous events are any indication, the friends of press freedom are unlikely to prove much help.

Though life has been hard for critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his administration lately, this wholesale assault on one of Turkey’s most powerful independent voices is a watershed. The government is signaling that there are no boundaries left in its crackdown on dissent.

Erdogan’s animus toward Zaman has its roots in the rivalry between the president’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gulen movement, a secretive Islamist network that once facilitated the party’s rise. Zaman has long played a key role in the far-flung Gulen business empire, and it has become an increasingly prominent voice in the chorus of Erdogan’s critics in recent years. The intensity of the bad feeling on both sides undoubtedly has much to do with the fact that they used to be allies.

As the AKP established its dominance in the early 2000s and began purging secular civil servants from the state bureaucracy, the Gulen movement — which is led by Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric now living in the U.S. — provided the manpower to replace them. In two high-profile trials launched in 2008 and 2010, Gulen-affiliated police and prosecutors put secular and military officials on trial for alleged coup attempts. Many outside analysts pointed out flaws in those cases that indicated that the charges had been trumped up for political reasons.

The trials ended with the convictions of hundreds of military officers, effectively neutralizing the once-powerful Turkish military as a political force. Gulen media and journalists publicized the trials with articles based on leaked investigative documents. For the benefit of the outside world, the Gulen outlets used their extensive English-language media to promote a new “Turkish model” that supposedly reconciled democracy and Islam.

Then the relationship soured. Gulen and Erdogan disagreed about Turkey’s relations with Israel; in 2010, then-Prime Minister Erdogan denounced Israel and broke off diplomatic ties. They disagreed even more about how to deal with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been conducting an armed rebellion against the government since 1978. Erdogan reached a ceasefire with the group and opened peace negotiations in 2013, but the Gulen movement resented the government’s outreach to the Kurds. Like the AKP, the Gulenists saw Islam as the way to unify Turks and Kurds. The AKP’s peace negotiations with the PKK, a proponent of Kurdish nationalism, came as a betrayal of this approach.

In late 2013, as tensions between the two sides intensified, the AKP moved to close the Gulenists’ network of schools, a key part of their financing and recruitment efforts. That seems to have been the last straw. In December of that year, pro-Gulen prosecutors and police pushed back, arresting scores of AKP officials and businessmen on corruption charges. Leaked wiretapped recordings of top officials engaged in corrupt dealings, including Erdogan himself, suddenly flooded social media.

Now the government appears to be taking its revenge. Erdogan and his party weathered the initial attacks in 2013 and 2014 by firing and reassigning thousands of police and prosecutors, as well as by winning a string of elections. Now they appear poised to finish the job. The Gulen movement stands accused of attempting a coup in a case no less convoluted than those it once pushed against the military. The seizure of Feza today, like the seizure of the Gulen-linked Ipek Media last October, is based on unproven criminal accusations that the movement created a terrorist group that seeks to overthrow the state, and that these are this terrorist group’s media arms.

Whatever sins the Gulen movement may have committed, no proof has ever been presented that it formed a terrorist organization. Government pressure on the private media in Turkey is already extensive. The Gulenist outlets, for all their flaws, were some of the last critical voices that remained. Their expropriation today marks a serious, probably fatal blow to the country’s press freedom. Turkey crossed the threshold into the “Not Free” category in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report in 2014. This latest event will only deepen that downward slide.

The next steps are easily predicted. The government will occupy Feza’s offices and replace the current journalists with new ones. Its newspapers will become pro-government mouthpieces. Its printing press in Istanbul — one of the largest in Turkey — will stop printing critical publications, which could have a ripple effect through the industry. Some of the Feza journalists will start new outlets, and some of them will probably find an audience, but it will be smaller and less influential. Still others will flee the country, as many people linked to the Gulen movement already have. More journalists will go to jail.

Next on the government’s target list is likely to be the Peoples’ Democratic Party, a predominantly Kurdish party with connections to the PKK that, just a year ago, was holding press conferences alongside government representatives announcing a roadmap for peace. After threatening Erdogan’s grip on power with a strong result in one of last year’s parliamentary elections, the party has since found itself under withering attack. Now there is a mounting drumbeat calling for its outright ban. Whether journalist or politician, secularist or Islamist — these days no one in Turkey is safe.

In the photo, people demonstrate in front of the headquarters of Turkish daily newspaper Zaman on March 4, 2016.

Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Nate Schenkkan is project director of the Nations in Transit publication at Freedom House.

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