More disturbing moves on the Turkish media

More disturbing moves on the Turkish media

The 6th Istanbul Criminal Court of Peace ruled to appoint a trustee panel to the Zaman media group on March 4, following a request by the Istanbul Prosecutors’ Office within the framework of a probe against the an “Fethullahist Terror Organization” (FETÖ). 

The claim of the prosecutor is that the media group - which is among the biggest in Turkey, owning the Zaman newspaper, Today's Zaman, the Aksiyon news weekly, Samanyolu TV and the Cihan News Agency - was an extension of this alleged terrorist organization led by Fethullah Gülen. Gülen is a U.S.-based Islamist ideologue who used to be among the closest allies of President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) governments, but who is now accused of plotting to overthrow the government through a “parallel structure within the state” by infiltrating the judicial, administrative, security, and education bureaucracies. The Zaman media group had been strongly supportive of AK Party governments up until 2013, but adopted a critical stance after Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu started denouncing the Gülen group as conspiring against the government.

This is the second time that a media group in Turkey has been subject to the practice of being repressed through trustees appointed by court rulings. In October 2015 an Ankara court appointed trustees to the Koza-İpek industrial group, which among many other companies owned the Bugün and Millet newspapers and the Bugün and Kanaltürk TV stations. Koza-İpek was accused of similar “FETÖ” accusations and all four of its media companies had been closed down by trustees by the end of February.

Journalism associations and main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu have denounced these moves as a “blow to freedom of the press through violation of the law.” 

The latest measures against the media came just a few hours after a Kayseri court ruled for the detention of three shareholders of the Boydak industrial group, a major family company, again as part of a “FETÖ/parallel state” probe, accused of providing financial resources to the alleged terrorist organization. The Boydak group is known to be one of the main supporters of former President Abdullah Gül, who is also one of the founding fathers of the AK Parti, in his hometown Kayseri. After the Boydak group was attacked last year by prominent AK Parti figures for having links to Gülenists, it issued a public statement clarifying that it had no such links.

These steps are yet more examples of government involvement not only in the steering of media companies but also in the steering of private enterprises in Turkey.

What’s more, there are interesting coincidences regarding the court ruling and its timing.

The 6th Istanbul Criminal Court of Peace is the same court that rejected the demand to release two arrested journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül back in December 2015. The two were finally released from pre-trial arrest on Feb. 26, following the Feb. 25 Constitutional Court ruling that the daily Cumhuriyet journalists’ reports did not amount to “military espionage” or “assisting a terrorist organization,” but came within freedom of the press. Dündar and Gül ended up spending 92 days in prison, accused of assisting the alleged “FETÖ/parallel state” through reports on National Intelligence Agency (MİT) trucks allegedly carrying military equipment to opposition groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

President Erdoğan has been slamming the Constitutional Court’s ruling for days, saying he believed Dündar and Gül’s actions amounted to espionage. He slammed the ruling as “unconstitutional,” which was in turn criticized by the main opposition CHP as an attempt to put the court under political pressure, as the case is still ongoing despite the journalists’ pre-trial release.

The move to appoint trustees to the Zaman group came right before a key meeting between the Turkish government and the EU on March 7 in Brussels over an agreement on handling the Syrian refugees in Turkey with EU funding and reactivating Turkey-EU relations. The EU has been harshly criticized by Turkish opposition forces - and also voices in EU member states - for turning a blind eye to rights violations in Turkey in order to secure the migrants agreement.

Whatever the outcome of the EU-Turkey deal, the latest measures against the media in Turkey are likely to create even more psychological pressure on those media groups that are not yet fully in line with the government.