“Zaman, killed on Friday, wakes up on Sunday as a pro-government zombie,” writes journalist Piotr Zalewski this week.
But the “killing” of Zaman on March 4 did not happen quietly and without incident. Instead, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, a court order in hand from a docile judiciary, raided the editorial offices of the newspaper, fighting demonstrators with tear gas and water canons. Now Zaman is in government custody, rededicated to praise the glory of a defiant president.
The violent crackdown on the free press brings the “darkest hours” in the country’s history, as the editors described the incident before being ousted from their offices.
Zaman and its sister publication, Today’s Zaman, had a daily circulation of 650,000, one of the largest in Turkey.
Zaman, before its takeover this past week, was affiliated with the Gulenist movement, controlled by the exiled cleric Fetullah Gulen. At one time, Gulen and Erdogan were allies in promoting the Islamist AK Party to take over power in Turkey. After Erdogan established himself as the authoritarian ruler of Turkey, he had a fallout with his erstwhile ally, who continued to enjoy broad support in the Turkish armed forces, police and judiciary.
Erdogan purged most of those establishments under the guise of fighting the “Deep State.” The free press and one of its most prominent representatives, Zaman, were the last bastions in Turkey propagating Gulenist policies and following a critical line against government excesses.
Erdogan had vowed to bring that paper into the fold too, to silence all criticisms in the country. Therefore, today, Turkey’s free press is in shackles.
The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said they have been closely monitoring the situation with great concern.
“The European Union cannot remain silent about the political seizure of Zaman newspaper, Today’s Zaman and Cihan news agency,” they said in a statement.
The EFJ/IFJ will report the case to the Council of Europe’s platform for the protection and safety of journalists to the Mapping Media Freedom platform as a new example of violations of freedoms in Turkey.
In Europe the perception is that the Zaman takeover shows Erdogan moving from authoritarianism to all-out despotism.
The takeover of Zaman is only the tip of an iceberg. It is part of a much broader crackdown on dissent. Indeed, last January, the intelligence forces there placed more than 1,000 academics under investigation for having protested the government’s military operation in the southeastern part of Turkey, which is currently wreaking havoc on the Kurdish minority living there. The city of Diyarbakir is a virtual war zone and under the pretense of ridding the country of terrorists. Additionally, since 2014, 1,845 cases have been launched against people accused of insulting the president.
The Zaman scandal had its precedent when journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul were arrested three months earlier on charges of espionage. In fact, they had reported in their newspaper, Cumhuriyet, that the government was supplying terrorist organizations in Syria with armaments. They had even supplied photographs.
The government accused them of divulging state secrets and Mr. Erdogan bragged that they would pay a price. Then the Constitutional Court released them from jail. An irate Erdogan decried, “I don’t obey or respect the decision.”
The journalists still face pending charges and they may face life sentences.
“In normal countries, the president is there to ask the people to obey the laws,” said Mr. Dunder. “But in Turkey, it’s the people who have to ask the president to do so.”
Cumhuriyet and Zaman are not the only media outlets which have become victims of a crackdown last week; police have raided the Istanbul offices of Koza Ipek group and shut down its live TV broadcast. Earlier victims included Bengutur TV and IMC TV, which have since been dropped from the state-run communication satellite Turksat.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has become the largest jailer of journalists and now ranks 149th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
France, Germany and the EU officials have all condemned Turkey’s seizure of Zaman newspaper. A German government spokesman has announced that Chancellor Angela Merkel has raised the issue of press freedom with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault similarly has expressed his concern and said that the move was contrary to European values. “It is not acceptable. We cannot want to get close to European standards and not respect the pluralism of the media. It is obvious and we have said it clearly to the Turks.”
In his turn, the European Parliament President Martin Schultz said that he had spoken to Davutoglu and told him that a free press was “a non-negotiable element of our European identity.”
“He who wants to join the European Union must support freedom of expression, freedom of press and must tolerate criticism,” said German Green Party leader Cem Ozdemir, who is an ethnic Turk born in Germany.
Incidentally, Ozdemir is spearheading the battle in the German Bundestag for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Further, on a side note, Today’s Zaman (pre-zombie change) reported that Garo Paylan, an ethnic Armenian in the Turkish parliament and a member of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), delivered a speech in the Turkish general assembly last Thursday and showed some photos featuring graffiti with the words “Armenian bastards” which he has labeled as a serious case of racism.
Continuing his speech, Paylan added, “This crime was committed not only by the security forces, but also by the prime minister.”
Indeed, last week Prime Minister Davutoglu, visiting Bingol, said the Armenian gangs cooperated with the Russians during World War I.
“What kind of racism is this? Am I permitted to say ‘Turkish gangs?’”
With all the crimes and trespasses of the Turkish government Europe and the US, at best, give it a slap on the wrist and continue cooperating with the Erdogan regime.
Roy Greenslade has published an article in the Guardian under the title “Erdogan, the enemy of press freedom, will humiliate the EU again.”
In that article, he quotes Christophe Deloire, the secretary general of RSF, who has said, “EU must exercise all of its potential leverage. … There can be no question of resuming EU accession talks while Ankara visibly tramples on basic European values.” And then Greenslade continues his comments, “He isn’t holding his breath about EU action, however, until now, the European Union has demonstrated culpable weakness in response to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attacks on the media.”
Then he asks, “Is the EU determined to let itself be humiliated? The answer is clear: Yes.”
The pessimistic conclusion is based on objective assessment. At this point, Mr. Davutoglu is in Brussels negotiating a deal with the leaders of the European Union, to extort another $3.5 billion in return for admitting waves of refugees from Greece and European shores. Throughout his negotiations, after hearing all the criticism and sermons, he will perhaps think in his mind cynically that “beggars can’t be choosers. If you need Turkey to help you in the refugee issue, you need to cough up the money and mind your business. You have no leverage on us and how we treat journalists in our country.”
This is in essence the basis of the Erdogan government’s arrogance. No European Union leader has yet had the temerity to point the finger at Turkey, accusing it as the cause of this mayhem. Turkey’s aggression against a stable country like Syria exacerbated the situation, forcing out the peaceful population to scatter to the shores of the Aegean Sea and beyond. And instead of Turkey, it is Europe which is paying the price for this epic humanitarian tragedy.
Turkey tramples European values and gets away with murder. Erdogan’s military is on a murderous rampage against the nation’s Kurdish population, the carnage is paramount, the EU and the US have their conscience clear, when they classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.
Turkey is in a standoff with Russia, rattling the structures of the NATO alliance and Mr. Obama pontificates, “Turkey has the right to defend itself.”
Since the beginning of the Cold War, Turkey has assumed the role of serving as a surrogate to do the dirty jobs of the West in the Middle East. It arms the terrorist groups in Syria, and the West looks the other way.
Indeed, the Guardian writer is right: Don’t hold your breath. Erdogan will not be held accountable for his domestic problems and international blunders, because he has become a necessary evil.