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10 March 2016

How the migrant crisis is helping Erdogan control the Turkish press

The clampdown on critical media groups is just one element of Turkey’s censorship of journalists.

By Alev Scott

Last week in Turkey, a media group critical of the government was raided by police and put under state control, just three days before the country’s EU accession was due to be discussed at a much-anticipated summit in Brussels. While the world outside reacted with shock to journalists’ live tweets of the raid at the offices of Zaman, owned by Feza Publications, there was little surprise among Turks: their country ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index 2015 and has one of the highest number of jailed journalists anywhere in the world.

The Feza raid was not entirely unexpected – the group was one of the last boldly critical voices in Turkey. One of Zaman’s journalists declared the seizure “the end of democracy”, and its readership was left wondering where to turn for commentary as the Turkish media increasingly engage in self-censorship under pressure from the government.

The popular daily Hürriyet, for instance, is generally referred to as Turkey’s main “opposition” paper, but its coverage of the government became markedly milder the day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won back its parliamentary majority on 1 November 2015. Hürriyet’s owner, the Dogan Group, was perhaps more cunning than the proprietor of Zaman.

Feza Publications owns some of Turkey’s most popular TV channels and newspapers, including Zaman. The paper appeared on news-stands the day after the police raid under a surreal guise – full of glowing news about the AKP government (the front page featured an enthusiastic article about the newly completed third bridge in Istanbul, a controversial project instigated by the AKP). It remains unclear who the new editors are, or what the official reason is for the group’s seizure. What is clear is that the takeover was politically motivated. Zaman staff said that the paper’s regular readership of 636,000 fell to 4,000 overnight.

Last October, another media group, Koza-Ipek, was raided in similar circumstances just days before the snap elections on 1 November, returning with a brand-new, pro-government editorial line the following day. What did the two groups have in common? Both were affiliated with the exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. Erdogan accused Gülen of plotting to overthrow the government, with help from a network of stooges in the media, police and judiciary, after the two men, formerly political allies, fell out in 2013.

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Both media groups were seized at “unfortunate” moments. The Koza-Ipek takeover took place four days before the elections called by Erdogan, after the AKP had failed to win a ruling majority in June, leading to a hung parliament. And yet the seizure of an opposition media group failed to damage the party’s performance. It swung back to power with just under 50 per cent of the popular vote. Similarly, the Feza group seizure on 5 March, though diplomatically awkward for EU leaders, failed to dent Turkey’s bargaining power. The EU’s concerns about the need to strengthen press freedom took a back seat to its desire to keep refugees from the Middle East outside Europe’s borders.

The clampdown on critical media groups is just one element of Turkey’s censorship of the press. In November, Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of the independent Cumhuriyet newspaper, and Erdem Gül, the paper’s Ankara bureau chief, were arrested and jailed on Erdogan’s instructions after publishing an article about arms being smuggled over the Turkish-Syrian border. The charges levelled against them included “espionage”, and campaigns by organisations such as PEN International have fallen on deaf ears.

Last month, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the jailing violated the journalists’ human rights. Erdogan responded by declaring, “I do not obey or respect the decision,” causing speculation that he had publicly dismissed the rule of law. When Dündar appeared for a live TV interview on 26 February, soon after his release, the channel on which he was appearing, IMC, was suspended mid-broadcast.

Many Turks fear that little that can be done to stop the crackdown. Four days after the Feza takeover, the journalist Baris Ince was sentenced to 21 months for insulting the president, on the grounds that the initial letters of each paragraph in his written plea spelled out “thief”. At least some journalists retain a sense of humour. On his release, Dündar thanked Erdogan. “I believe I should thank you,” he wrote. “Imprisonment was one of the few professional experiences missing from my résumé. Thanks to you, I’ve achieved this also.”

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho