Commentary

Muzzling of Press in Turkey Continues

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

A court ruling in Turkey has put one of the country’s main newspapers —Zaman — under the administration of a board of trustees. The decision, for which no justification has been given, opens the way for the government to take over one of the few remaining critical voices in the media. The Zaman group has been linked to Gülenist network which has been accused of running a parallel state. Many see this recent development as an attempt by Mr. Reccep Erdogan, the country’s president, to further cement his position and to make way for constitutional changes which are calculated to turn Turkey into a presidential system, rather than a parliamentary one.

On the day of its seizure, which was accompanied by violence, Zaman staff released a final strongly worded statement warning regarding the dangers associated with the muzzling of the freedom of press and speech in the country: “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. Intellectuals, businesspeople, celebrities, civil society organizations (CSOs), media organizations and journalists are being silenced via threats and blackmail....Turkey's highest circulating newspaper, Zaman, and its sister publication Today's Zaman have come under serious pressure for more than two years, which has taken the form of accreditation bans, tax inspections, meddling with its advertisers and threats to its readers....We believe the only way out of this nightmarish atmosphere is to return to democracy and the rule of law. We are publishing our concerns to inform the Turkish nation, intellectuals who believe in democracy and the wider world.”

The Turkish government, for its part, has gone to great lengths to frame the development as a legal rather than a political issue. According to a report posted on Good Morning Turkey, the country’s prime minister, Mr. Ahmet Davutoğlu noted that “’The government played no part in a court decision to appoint trustees to the Zaman media group…Our government has no bearing in this. The decisions judicial bodies have made will be implemented,’ Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told private broadcaster A Haber during a live broadcast on March 6 about a ruling issued by an Istanbul court that ordered the placement of the Feza Gazetecilik Media Group under the administration of a board of trustees. ‘I made remarks on this yesterday. It is completely a legal process. No one should have hesitation about press freedom in Turkey,’ he said.”

But it is clear to everyone, both critics as well as supporters of the government’s decision, that muzzling Zaman is part of Mr. Erdogan’s political ambitions. For example, Hurriyet Daily News’ Yusuf Kanli believes that the ‘domestication’ of Turkish media is an important element of Mr. Erdogan’s plans for a presidential regime: “The country was preparing to learn what a ‘Turkish-style presidential regime’ might mean but was instead given practical lessons on “Turkish-style critical media domestication.”... Seeing the performances by the apprentice and assistant masters, I can only say may God save the Turkish media from the ‘master’ performance of this demonic understanding of the “domestication of the critics.” Which media outlet might be the next victim in the “process” is now up for bets but more or less everyone is aware where the government will target next time. When? It depends. Will there be a referendum on the presidential regime or on a constitution that ushers in the nightmare of a presidential regime come fall?”

Murat Yetkin sees signs of an internal power struggle in the seizure of Zaman newspaper, considering that the latter is associated with Mr. Gul, a once-close ally of the president, who has turned critic of the government: “The seizure of the Zaman media groups is the latest –but perhaps not the last– stage of an inner struggle within the Islamist/conservative wing of Turkish politics....The dominating factor in domestic politics is Erdoğan’s plan to shift Turkey’s parliamentary system to a strong presidential one where all executive powers are to be consolidated in the hands of president with lesser checks-and-balances, probably through a stronger influence of the executive branch over the judicial one....The indications show that in all those fields, the remaining days and weeks of March could be a stage for accelerated political action. If that is considered together with key talks with the EU over the Syrian migrants and possible military action by the coalition in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), it can be seen that this acceleration could be a risky one for Ankara.”

Supporters of the government’s actions, including Daily Sabah’s Saadet Oruc, suggest the seizure of the Turkish daily was a necessary national security action and that the complaints coming from the Gulenist camp lacked credibility since “Zaman, which tried to put forth an image of being the champion of press freedoms, was the operational tool of an organization that imprisoned journalists "a l'epoque."Abroad, the representations of Zaman have more visible links with the Gülenist terror network, as well.The media group, in fact, was aware of the preparations of the decision to seize its newspapers and took measures to cause troubles in front of the implementation of the decisions of the judicial organs....So the problem is not the freedom of the press, since the Feza group was something other than media. It is an operational tool of a secret criminal network that tried to topple the government and form a hegemonic power abroad. And many times it also violated press freedoms.”

Similarly, in an op-ed for Yeni Safak, Ibrahim Karagül accuses the Zaman staff of being involved in anti-government and spying activities, aiming to undermine the Turkish state: “Journalism has very expansive elbowroom, but that does not include and cannot include spying. No journalist has or can have such immunity or privilege. No journalist can carry out an operation against their country, people or state....Turkey has clearly faced an operation; a multinational coup was planned and implemented. This is outside intervention. A structure organized under the name “cemaat” (religious congregation), a structure that has infiltrated the most private sections of the political and economic power sphere, was used against Turkey....Today's political mind, state mind and social awareness has the experience to manage this transformation. Even if painful, even if it pays a price, this path will be walked. Everything that tangles around Turkey's leg will be eliminated, one by one. This is an inevitable obligation.”

Regional observers have been critical of the Turkish government’s actions as well as of the lack of appropriate action on the part of the international community. In a recent editorial, the Khaleej Times staff bemoans the timing as well as the implications associated the seizure of the newspaper: “Ankara has cracked down on the country's biggest newspaper Zaman which is unwarranted at a time when Turkey is at war with Daesh. This seems to be an attempt to browbeat the opposition, as the newspaper is linked to the Hizmet movement of influential US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen....The question is what's next? Reactions from the European Union and the United States are surprisingly muted. They have called for restraint, but stopped short of voicing their concern for freedom of speech. Turkey seems to have got its way by exploiting the geostrategic nexus with the West.... But the protests are not going to die down any time soon. Ankara's earlier decision to take on the Kurds, and now this attempt to muzzle the Press could hurt its image in the eyes of the world.”

The National editorial suggests that the timing associated with the closure will not shield Turkey from the instability that is likely to come down the road: “Fearful of its hold on power, Turkey’s leadership is using the chaos of Syria and the refugee crisis as a diversion and continuing to silence opposition voices in politics and in the media at home. The situation bodes ill for Turkey’s future. Since the anti-government Gezi Park protests in 2013 and the breakdown in peace talks with the Kurds, internal division in Turkey has widened. By renewing attacks on the Gulen movement via a crackdown on the press, Mr Erdogan is fanning the flames of division. This is worrying because of Turkey’s present external challenges....his is not to absolve the followers of Mr Gulen from any wrongdoing. Far from it. The region and the world need a unified and strong Turkey at this pivotal moment. We appear to be getting the opposite.”


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