As a frequent contributor to Today’s Zaman, the English-language edition of Turkey’s largest daily newspaper Zaman, I was shocked by the Turkish government’s takeover on Friday of the Feza Media Group. Apart from Zaman and Today’s Zaman, this group includes the Cihan News Agency, a magazine and a publisher.
But it should not have come as a surprise. Since the inappropriately named Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, there has under its leader and now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, been a regression in individual rights, including freedom of expression and press freedom. While Erdogan claimed over a year ago that “nowhere in the world is the press freer than in Turkey”, his actions clearly belie his words.
Reporters Without Borders has in its 2015 World Press Freedom Index ranked Turkey as 149 out of 180 countries, which is an improvement on the three previous years, when it ranked 154. However, this was due to the conditional release of 40 imprisoned journalists, who nonetheless continued to face prosecution. Turkey’s situation as a whole - when you consider such areas as cyber-censorship, lawsuits, dismissals of critical journalists and gag orders – actually worsened.
Journalists and media organisations have been physically attacked. Ahead of last November’s elections last year, a mob with alleged connections to the AKP’s youth branch attacked the offices of Dogan Media Group in Istanbul in September, which houses the secular daily Hürriyet, its English-language edition Hürriyet Daily News and another daily Radikal.
In October, Ahmet Hakan, a Hürriyet columnist and TV talk show host, was attacked by four men outside his home after leaving the studio.
Friday’s assault on Zaman’s offices followed the same pattern as October’s police raid on the offices of the Koza Ipek Media Group, which owned two newspapers and two TV stations. The court-appointed trustees have just closed both the TV stations and the newspapers.
Turkey’s Scarlet Pimpernel, the whistleblower Fuat Avni, who has predicted the AKP government’s moves with uncanny accuracy, tweeted on Thursday that President Erdogan had ordered the takeover of the Feza Media Group with the definite intention of silencing Zaman. After the Constitutional Court ruling which freed two journalists, Erdogan has made it clear he has no respect for the rule of law in Turkey, although the freedom of the press is safeguarded by several articles of the constitution.
The background to Erdogan’s frenzied actions is the probe into government corruption launched by Istanbul prosecutors and police in December 2013. Erdogan called this probe “a judicial coup” masterminded by a reclusive imam, Fethullah Gülen, resident in Pennsylvania.
The Gülen movement, which promotes interfaith dialogue, is believed to have some five million followers and controls a network of schools and universities in more than 100 countries. It also has many followers in the Turkish judiciary and police.
Consequently, Erdogan set about a purge of thousands of police officers and hundreds of judges and prosecutors. This witch-hunt has also extended to the civil service. A recent circular issued by the Prime Ministry calls for civil servants to be dismissed from their positions if they are suspected to be members of “illegal structures and organisations disguised as legal ones”.
Erdogan’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has even accused all three opposition parties represented in parliament of being illegal political parties “disguised as legal”.
The witch-hunt includes media groups as well as businessmen suspected of being members of what the AKP government calls FETO (The Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation). Ironically, it was Gülen’s cadres that helped Erdogan come to power - but after the revelations of widespread corruption in AKP circles, Gülen has become Erdogan’s arch-enemy.
There are rumblings of a split in the AKP, where former prominent members might form a new party to challenge Erdogan’s domination.
In the meantime, as Turkish novelist Elif Shafak wrote last week, a climate of intimidation and paranoia dominates the country – a country which is under the thrall of what opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu called “a tinpot dictator”.