The seizure of Turkey’s biggest opposition newspaper is the latest move against press freedom in the country. Since the election of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2014, the increasingly autocratic politician has waged an ongoing war with voices critical of his government.
Editors and journalists have been targeted against a backdrop of regional conflict and a reignited battle with the country’s Kurdish minority. According to Turkey’s justice minister as many as 1,845 cases have been opened against people accused of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since he came to office in 2014. Journalists, celebrities and even children have faced charges.
Condemnation of the move against Zaman has been swift.
“With this move, Turkey has hit a new low for media freedom,” said Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg. “We now need the international community to help pull it back from the brink by encouraging governments to speak out publicly against these actions instead of turning a blind eye to President Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism.”
Writers, journalists and artists all told Index of their concerns about Turkey’s future.
Journalist Fredericke Geerdink, who was arrested and deported from Turkey for reporting on the conflict with the Kurds, said “it’s no surprise at all that Zaman was taken over by the government. After all, the government’s papers hinted on it weeks ago already. It was not a matter of if, but when and how Zaman would be silenced, and the affiliated Cihan news agency with it. But let’s not pretend that this is the day democracy in Turkey was carried to its grave. The press in Turkey has never been free. President Erdogan is only taking the poor press freedom situation in Turkey to new, extreme levels by using existing structures in the state system. The end of his reign, which will inevitably come, will not be enough to save the media in Turkey. Both the laws restricting press freedom and the ownership structures in the media should be tackled. For this, it is crucial that journalists in Turkey stand together, despite the polarization in society that hinders solidarity among journalists as well.”
Historian and author Tom Holland said, “that the rich and argumentative journalistic culture of Turkey should come to this. The free airing of opinions is a mark, not of Turkish weakness, but of Turkish strength”.
Neil Mackay, novelist and editor of the Sunday Herald in Scotland said “the actions of the Turkish government are a chilling attack on freedom of speech which all journalists and writers across the globe should oppose. No country which aspires to democracy can operate without a truly free press. I call on the Turkish government to overturn their decision immediately, and allow the newspaper Zaman, and its staff and editors, to report events freely and without government control.”
Cardiff University professor of journalism Richard Sambrook said “independence of media from government control is internationally recognised as essential for a mature, healthy democracy – and is also essential for economic and social development. I’d urge the Turkish authorities to reconsider this regressive move”.
Deputy managing editor London Evening Standard Will Gore said the “move by Turkish authorities to place the Zaman newspaper group under the management of trustees is a deeply worrying development in the government’s ongoing crackdown on media freedom in Turkey. Not only does it imperil free speech but strikes at the heart of one of the fundamental tenets of democracy. Journalists around the world should raise their voices in protest”.
Artist and writer Molly Crabapple said: “The Turkish government’s takeover of Zaman is only one of their recent, frightening moves to curtail the already highly restricted freedoms of journalists working in Turkey. These include the trial of Cumhurriyat editors, the arrests of journalists working for the Kurdish leftist news site Jiyan, the three-month long detention of VICE News producer Mohammed Rasool, the detention of Syrian photojournalist Rami Jarrah, expulsions of foreign journalists, and the near complete press blackout in Eastern Turkey. Writers and journalists must call on the Turkish government to respect freedom of speech and press.”
Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley called the move “unconstitutional, troubling and part of a pattern of making life harder for the opposition. Nobody would deny that Turkey faces serious security challenges. But a free press is essential to democracy, and the world needs a democratic Turkey now more than ever”.
the problem with zaman: columnist says today’ll be in turkey’s history as the day turkey crossed into open facism. https://t.co/V5cH7fsyB6
— Frederike Geerdink (@fgeerdink) March 4, 2016
The European Federation of Journalists said: “The European Union cannot remain silent to the political seizure of Zaman newspaper, Today’s Zaman daily and Cihan news agency. The appointment of trustees by the judicial system was actually foreseen to save dying private companies and cannot be used to silence critical media outlets or to attack social rights of media workers”.
Amnesty International accused the Erdogan government of “steamrolling over human rights” and warned that “s free and independent media, together with the rule of law and independent judiciary, are the cornerstones of internationally guaranteed freedoms which are the right of everyone in Turkey”.
The decision by a court to appoint administrators to run Zaman was preceded by last week’s move by Turksat to stop carrying independent broadcaster IMC TV’s signal, which Index condemned. In October 2015, Koza İpek Holding, and the five media outlets it owned, were put into administration by a court after a demand by the Ankara prosecutor’s office.
The seizure of Zaman, a news organisation aligned with the Gulen movement, is the latest move in a campaign of pressure against the newspaper. On 14 December 2014, police arrested senior journalists and media executives associated with the Gulen movement on terrorism-related changes. Among the arrestees was Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of Zaman. When the police raided the paper’s offices they were greeted by protesters tipped off in advance. Dumali surrendered to the police later that day. He and other detainees were ordered released on 19 December for lack of evidence.
At the time, the US State Department cautioned Turkey not to violate its “own democratic foundations” while drawing attention to raids against media outlets “openly critical of the current Turkish government.” EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said that the arrests went “against European values” and “are incompatible with the freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy”.
In February, Index on Censorship welcomed the release of journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül after Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that their rights had been violated by their arrest. Index strongly reiterates its call for Turkish authorities to drop all charges against the pair.
Dündar, the editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, and his Ankara bureau chief, Gül, had been held since the evening of 26 November. They are charged with spying and terrorism because last May they published evidence of arms deliveries by the Turkish intelligence services to Islamist groups in Syria. They are currently awaiting trial.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey had 14 journalists in jail at the end of 2015. There have been 17 journalists arrested or detained in the country in 2016, according to verified incidents reported to Index’s project Mapping Media Freedom.