Turkish state continuing to take over media critical of Erdogan

Journalists are being tried and fired in curbs on editorial independence in Turkey

 

On a recent Friday evening the weekend edition of Today’s Zaman, the sister publication of Turkey’s largest-selling newspaper Zaman, was being readied to go to press.

Reporter Abdullah Ayasun has worked at the English-language newspaper for five years, but this weekend would be different; he and hundreds of colleagues stayed on into the evening – word was out the situation they feared the most was imminent.

“The police showed up at around 11.15pm, we didn’t expect such a brutal takeover. I suffered from intense tear gas and water cannon before we retreated back to the building,” he said. “The police first broke down the outside gates and then stormed the building with overwhelming force.”

Ayasun then found his passwords no longer worked; when he approached the court-appointed trustee inside the paper’s offices the following day, he was told the newspaper’s editorial stance, which had been critical of the ruling AK Party, “will, of course, change”.

Sanitised stories

ZamanRecep Tayyip Erdogan

The censorship of Zaman brings to three the number of major news agencies that have come under pro-government media control in what, since October, has been a major acceleration in the curbing of the free press in Turkey.

Last year saw 774 journalists fired, 156 detained and court cases opened against 238, according to figures from a leading opposition party. Kurdish journalists and reporters covering Kurdish issues face particularly serious sanction.

Almost 1,000 journalists at the Feza Media Group that owns Zaman, Today’s Zaman and Cihan, one of Turkey’s leading news agencies that also came under new, government-friendly ownership last month, now face uncertain futures.

The authorities have targeted exiled scholar Fethullah Gulen and the various organisations affiliated to his Hizmet movement, including Zaman, since police and prosecutors attempted to investigate members of Erdogan’s family and inner circle on graft charges in December 2013.*

In response, the government fired thousands of police and judges, and began seizing critical media outlets.

Today’s Zaman’s 16-page publication was reduced first to 12 pages, then to eight,” said Ayasun. “I, and other editors, demanded the removal of our names from the editorial board. We now have no responsibility over the content and we reject any association with the new format.” Within a week, sales of the newspaper plummeted by 99 per cent.

But it’s not only perceived threats from political opponents the AK Party has sought to quiet.

Alleged weapons

CumhuriyetSyria

The case is being conducted behind closed doors following a request from the prosecution citing “national security concerns”, a move the journalists’ lawyers sought to resist. Tellingly, the complainant named in the case is Turkey’s president.

“Reporting on arms shipments is a matter of public interest in any country whether the government likes it or not,” said Human Rights Watch Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair-Webb. The government says it was sending humanitarian aid to Turkmen communities in northern Syria, not weapons.

“Dündar and Gül are being tried on the very same baseless charges that the president suggested in his personal complaint against them last June,” Sinclair-Webb said in reference to a statement by Erdogan on state television last year claiming those who published the story would “pay a high price”.

More than 1,800 people have been sued for insulting the president, and Dündar and Gül could face life in prison if convicted.

Away from Istanbul, Kurdish journalists working in the east of Turkey have also faced discrimination.

Propaganda and insult

“The police with civilian clothes wanted to take me into custody without showing their identity cards. I have worked in the district as a journalist for years. [The other journalists] said that they didn’t resist against the police and they were battered while they were taken into custody,” said Idris Yilmaz, a reporter with the Kurdish DIHA news agency.

For now, Abdullah Ayasun of Today’s Zaman is trapped; if he resigned he would receive no compensation and so for now he feels forced to stay on.

“Resignation is what the trustees expect because it will only ease their job here and avoid the necessity of paying hundreds of people their years’ of savings,” he said. “But it’s only a matter of time [before there are] mass firings.”

* This article was amended at 12.15pm on April 5th, 2015, to correct an error

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