How fast the tide turns in Turkey. Just over a week ago, journalists and free speech advocates here celebrated the release from jail of Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, the editor-in-chief and Ankara bureau chief, respectively, of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet.
Turkey’s Constitutional Court had ruled that their arrest had violated their rights as journalists. Many believed the decision would start to roll back a government crackdown on critical media that had expanded significantly in recent months.
Some judges giveth; some taketh away. On March 4, a Turkish court approved a government takeover of Feza Media Group that oversees Zaman, Turkey’s most widely circulated newspaper, Cihan, a leading news agency, and Today’s Zaman, an English-language daily with international reach.
The takeover marks this government’s biggest blow against media freedom, and yet another gut-punch in the long-running and deeply personal slugfest between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen.
An aging Islamic leader from Turkey living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania, Gulen oversees a vast, loosely affiliated organisation that runs thousands of schools, businesses, and media outlets around the world and had in recent decades placed many of its members in key positions in Turkey’s police and judiciary.
The long and winding history of Erdogan and Gulen has been recounted elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the two are now a bit like Magneto and Professor Xavier of the X-Men films: terribly powerful allies-turned-arch-enemies, dealing body blows from above the fray as their underlings sustain the damage.
Their falling out exploded into public view in December 2013, when Gulenists in the police and judiciary launched a vast corruption probe that implicated many top officials in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
In response, Erdogan swore vengeance on the vast ‘parallel structure’ that he believes seeks to topple the state. And so it has come to pass. After dismissing and reassigning tens of thousands of Gulen-linked police and justice officials, the AKP has taken aim at Gulen-linked media. Last October, the government snatched the reins of the Koza-Ipek Group, which runs the dailies Bugun and Millet and their sister TV stations.
Now comes Zaman, the jewel and centrepiece of the Gulenist media empire. It should be mentioned, however, that since the corruption scandal, Zaman had become vehemently and predictably anti-government, with nearly every story heaping criticism on Ankara.
No surprise, then, that it had long been in government crosshairs. By Friday evening, police had violently raided the Zaman offices and detained its managers. Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of the media advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, called the takeover ‘ideological and unlawful’, adding: “Erdogan is now moving from authoritarianism to all-out despotism.”
Why kill Zaman now? It goes back to the release of Dundar and Gul. In a recent column, Hilal Kaplan laid out the government’s perspective: Dundar revealed himself as a Gulenist insider in late 2013, when he appeared to predict the coming corruption scandal.
He then proved this affiliation, Kaplan explains, with the Cumhuriyet story about trucks dispatched by Turkey’s intelligence agency supposedly delivering weapons to jihadis.
Whether or not Dundar is Gulenist is immaterial here. What matters is that the government has seen it fit to lump him in with the nefarious coup plotters. Thus, his recent release from jail marked a victory for Gulen; Erdogan had to respond. “I do not respect this ruling,” the president said in response to the Constitutional Court’s decision. “I’m not going to abide by it.”
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Another dark moment for the Turkish media’.