New raid on media adds to political confusion in Turkey

New raid on media adds to political confusion in Turkey

Turkish police raided the Zaman media group headquarters in Istanbul on Dec. 14, as part of an operation anticipated for the last few days.

Soon after, Hidayet Karaca, the head of the group’s main TV channel, Samanyolu, was taken into custody, along with the script writer and director of a TV drama series that it broadcasts. Following that, the Istanbul police took Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of daily Zaman, into custody, broadcast live on TV as thousands of people gathered at the Zaman building to protest against the operation.

The semi-official Anadolu Agency reported that the detentions were within the framework of a probe about allegedly fabricated evidence against a radical Islamist group reportedly critical of the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, a moderate Islamist scholar living in the U.S. who has a network of sympathizers both inside Turkey and abroad.

The operation has triggered protests by journalists, media institutions and political parties, with the opposition saying it was yet another move by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) against the freedom of the media and free speech in Turkey. 

Both Karaca and Dumanlı are names close to Gülen,  who used to be a close ally of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan until their interests  started to conflict from 2012 onward. Initially the conflict flared over the control of private schools run by Gülen, and then an interrogation attempt against the head of the National Intelligence Agency (MİT), but the final stage came after the opening of the biggest corruption probe in Turkey’s history on Dec. 17, 2013, followed by a second probe on Dec. 25. 

Erdoğan, who was still the prime minister at the time, claimed that Gülenists policemen, prosecutors and judges were behind the investigations, aiming to place his ministers, officials and even family members within a network of bribery. Erdoğan said they were not really corruption probes, but an attempted coup against his government by the Gülenists, who he started to label the “parallel structure within the state.”

The Zaman group, as the non-official voice of Gülen’s “Hizmet” (Service) movement, had given outright support (and is also accused of carrying out a manipulation campaign) for the government amid probes between 2007 and 2012, in which a number of military officers, journalists, NGO figures, and academics were arrested and sentenced to heavy penalties. That support for the government also included the Gezi protests of 2013.

However, after Erdoğan’s reaction to the graft probes of Dec. 17-25 last year, an open confrontation started between the government and the Gülenists. The Zaman group shifted to an opposition line, writing many articles about corruption and pressure on the media in Turkey.

That's why a probe has been anticipated for many days against the Zaman group, ahead of the first anniversary of the corruption probe. 

Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu were also worried that the opposition parties would attempt to mark the anniversary of the probes, in order not to allow them to be forgotten by the people. Last week, a spokesman for the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) complained that AK Parti municipalities were censoring their party’s placards and billboards about corruption.

“This is a day of tests,” Davutoğlu said, in reference to the police operations yesterday. “We are trying to protect democracy and everyone will get his share of the bill or reward due to their stances on this.”

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu condemned the detentions of media figures. “Attacks on the media cannot be accepted regardless of the identity of the victim. This is a coup practice, not a healthy democratic practice,” he said.

Meanwhile, on the day when the probe against Zaman and Samanyolu started, CHP spokesman Haluk Koç released a second list of nepotism claims involving relatives and close friends of prominent AK Parti figures, who he said received state jobs without passing the necessary civil servant examination.

Last week it was reported that a Mercedes limousine worth 1 million Turkish Liras ($435,000) had been allocated for the use of Mehmet Görmez, the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet). The reports come shortly after Pope Francis insisted on only a modest car being allocated to him and refused to stay in a luxury hotel (preferring the Vatican’s chancellery) during his recent visit to Ankara.

Another major issue for the government surrounds the problems appearing in the dialogue with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in pursuit of a political settlement to Turkey’s chronic Kurdish problem. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which shares similar grassroots with the PKK, wants constitutional changes before the parliamentary elections scheduled for June 15, distrustful about whether the government will keep its promises after the election.

Davutoğlu does not want the PKK to resume bloody attacks before the election, and also does not want to displease the AK Parti’s strongly anti-PKK nationalist-conservative wing. This comes at a time when the government is becoming more strained amid more accusations of corruption and nepotism. By claiming that the Gülenists, the CHP and the HDP are working hand in hand, Davutoğlu aims to consolidate his power base against a combined enemy, though it is getting harder for him to convince people both inside and outside Turkey that such a combination exists. That is why the latest move against the media is likely to complicate Turkish politics even further.