Analysis

Turkish President Using His Power to Stamp Out Freedom of Press

Violent assault on opposition newspaper Zaman comes at time when no global player would take Erdogan to task, making it ideal for getting rid of political rivals and diminishing 'hostile' media outlets.

Turkey's President Erdogan addresses audience in Ankara, January 12, 2016.
Reuters

It's as if the civil war in Syria was a marginal event and that the deep crisis in relations between Russia and Turkey was but an unimportant sideshow compared to the real war that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is waging against the movement led by his bitter enemy, Fethullah Gulen. The question has not been not "if," but rather "when" the police would take over Feza Publications, the communications company that owns Turkey's Zaman newspaper; and when it would be dealt with as if it were a base for a Kurdish terrorist organization.

Everything, it should be noted, was purportedly done in accordance with the law. The court issued the order required to take over the company on suspicion of association with a terrorist group and a plot to overthrow the government. It's precisely the action that the police took last October against a business enterprise, Koza Ipek Holding, which also owns a number of important media outlets in the country.

Turkish anti riot police officers launch water cannon and tear gas to disperse supporters of the Zaman Daily newspaper on March 4, 2016 in Istanbul.
AFP

In the case of Koza Ipek, company owner Ali Ipek ran afoul of the most important commandment in Turkey. His journalists published pointed criticism of Erdogan in the course of demonstrations that broke out in 2013 in Gezi Park in Istanbul. Ipek even ordered that injured demonstrators be given haven in a luxury hotel that he owns, where a medical facility was even set up. Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, issued a threat during that period saying that anyone who acted against his administration would pay a heavy price. Of course, he didn't forget when the time came to exact that full price against Koza Ipek.

When it comes to Feza Publications, in addition to Zaman, which is the newspaper with the largest circulation in the country, it also owns the English-language newspaper Today's Zaman. Following the Koza Ipek takeover, it was clear to the Feza group, just as it had been at the Dogan Holding, which experienced Erdogan's wrath several years ago, that its turn would also quickly come. Feza and Koza Ipek are both closely associated with the movement of Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania.

Erodogan set out to eradicate Gulen's movement as far back as 2013 after journalists close to the movement released recordings in which government ministers and even Erdogan himself were heard talking about subjects that raised bribery suspicions. As anticipated, Erdogan exploded in anger. He ordered the dismissal of hundreds of prosecutors, judges and police officers who had been suspected of leaking the conversations and with attempts to harm Erdogan, members of his family and his government. In the process, he managed to cleanse the prosecutor's office and the law enforcement system, albeit not completely, of Gulen loyalists.

Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pa. March 15, 2014
AP

Up to now, however, Erdogan had not managed to silence media outlets close to Gulan or to buy their support, as he had done in other instances in which he encouraged his associates to buy failing media properties. Erdogan also suffered a blow about a week ago when a court released two senior journalists from detention who had been accused of harming state security for publishing information on the transfer of weapons from Turkey to Syria – in trucks that apparently belonged to Turkish intelligence.  Erdogan has already announced that he does not accept the court decision, and he has encouraged the prosecution to appeal the journalists' temporary release.

The Turkish president's violent assault on his country's media in general and those associated with Gulen in particular come at a time of a supportive international environment for Turkey. Granted the U.S. administration did call the takeover of the Feza media group "troubling," and the European Union also showed its displeasure, but the reactions were far anything that would deter Erdogan.

At a time when the European Union and Turkey are partners to an agreement to stop the wave of immigrants to the Europe in exchange for 2.3 billion euros ($2.5 billion), and when the United States is using the services of Turkey's Incirlik airbase to attack ISIS, Islamic State, bases, and with Turkey also an ally of Saudi Arabia in the coalition in the war against terrorism, there is no influential global player that would wish to take the Turkish administration to task or to rile it over the closure or nationalization of newspapers. That makes this an outstanding time to get rid of political rivals and finish the job when it comes to "hostile" media outlets. And they are not the only ones in Erdogan's sights. The country's pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party is apparently also expected to run afoul of the legal system in addition to corporations with ties to Erdogan's rivals.

Nevertheless, there is a faint ray of light in the current situation, coming actually from Erodogan's own Justice and Development Party. A new Web-based newspaper called "Karar" (which means both "decision" and "determination") was recently organized. Its writers and editors are in fact supporters of the party, but they are critics of Erdogan's policies. It's just possible that freedom of expression in Turkey can find a haven through a media outlet of such a kind, at least until someone there makes Erdogan blow a fuse.