A trustee panel has been appointed to a media group considered to be linked to U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who the Turkish president accuses of heading a “terrorist organization” aiming to topple the government.
The trustees entered the headquarter of Feza Gazatecilik Media group - which includes Turkish Cihan News Agency, Today’s Zaman and Zaman dailies, Aksiyon magazine along with Zaman Kitap - under police supervision.
The Istanbul 6th Criminal Court of Peace ordered Feza Gazetecilik, a media group that publishes dailies Zaman and Today’s Zaman, to be placed under a trustee panel on March 4 upon a directive by the prosecutor’s office in Istanbul.
Gülen is accused by leading figures from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
and lawmakers from his inner circle of forming and heading a terrorist organization to topple the Turkish government, with the U.S.-based cleric’s alleged followers working as insiders in the police and other state institutions.
State-run Anadolu Agency reported that employees of the daily gathered outside the Zaman office building in Istanbul’s Yenibosna neighborhood, along with a large group who rushed to the scene in support. Many gathered outside waved placards reading “Free Press Cannot Be Silenced.”
Police dispersed the group later on March 4.
The move drew immediate reactions from press organizations and lawmakers, as well as journalism advocate organizations abroad.
Zaman Editor-in-Chief Abdülhamit Bilici was removed by the board of trustees from his post.
Police did not let Bilici enter the building on March 5.
He said democracy would continue and vowed that “free media would not be silenced.”
“I believe that democracy will continue, free media will not be silenced and in whatever way necessary the free media will continue, even by writing on the walls if necessary,” Bilici said hours after the court ruling on March 4, stressing that it was “not possible to silence media in the digital era.”
Today’s Zaman editor-in-chief Sevgi Akarçeşme, meanwhile, called the day “shameful for media freedom in the country.”
“Today we are experiencing a shameful day for media freedom in Turkey. Our media institutions are being seized,” Akarçeşme said, addressing the crowd outside the daily’s headquarters.
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu
criticized the move, saying his party would “give all kinds of support on the issue.”
“It is the government’s duty in real democracies to keep newspapers alive, not to bankrupt them,” Kılıçdaroğlu said.
A statement by the Turkish Journalists’ Association (TGC) board said “appointing trustee panels has become the newest tool to silence the media” in the country.
“The mentality that has been silencing the media through detentions, arrests, Internet bans and heavy fines, now burdens newspapers and TV channels and destroys them via trustee panels,” the TGC added.
The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) called the appointment “extremely troubling.”
“Turkey’s government appears to be willing to stop at no end to muzzle those who dare to criticize the policies of the president and the ruling AKP, much less those who point out alleged wrongdoing,” IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said in a statement.
“We urge diplomats and representatives of the international media to remind the Turkish government that a system where media outlets are prevented from giving citizens the information they need to hold their government accountable can hardly be called a functioning ‘democracy,’” he added.
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) Director Andrew Heslop also denounced the appointment.
“We stand in solidarity with our friends and colleagues at Zaman in categorically denouncing this latest assault on press freedom in Turkey. The appointment of trustees to run the media company is an outrageous step and one that further undermines the Turkish people’s ability to access alternative sources of news and information. Distressingly, the practice of influencing the direction of a media company is becoming a favored tactic of the Turkish authorities, one that flies in the face of internationally agreed standards for the freedom of the press and that severely erodes Turkey’s democratic credentials,” he said.
Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Deputy Group Chair İdris Baluken said the appointment amounted to a “total coup implementation.”
“This is a total coup implementation. Nobody can talk about press freedom in Turkey anymore,” Baluken said.
Council of Europe
Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks also commented on the appointment, urging the authorities to take necessary action on the issue.
“Considering what happened after a similar appointment of trustees to the Koza İpek media group, I see this as an extremely serious interference with media freedom which should have no place in a democratic society.
It is the latest in a string of unacceptable and undue restrictions of media freedom in Turkey, and it reinforces an extremely worrying pattern of judicial harassment against dissenting media and journalists in the country,” Muižnieks said.