“If this is a witch-hunt, yes, we will carry out this witch-hunt,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a few months ago to confront criticism that his government has gone too far in removing police officers and prosecutors who carried out a corruption investigation against his ministers and son.
That witch-hunt has now set foot into the realm of the outspoken media, prompting a world-wide scolding. Perhaps it will intensify until the Turkish authorities completely seize power ahead of next year’s key parliamentary elections. The outcome of that election could allow Erdogan to shift the nation’s parliamentary system into a presidential one, granting the country’s divisive president with extensive powers.
Busting a newspaper
Standing bold and defiant, most of the staff of Zaman and Today’s Zaman spend nights at its headquarters, tweeting their photos to their followers. More than a dozen Turkish journalists were arrested on Sunday, including the editor-in-chief of Zaman, Turkey’s best-selling daily, Ekrem Dumanli. Police officers stormed his office and took him into custody, live on TV. Alarmingly, Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu endorsed the move. Erdogan scorned the arrested journalists on Monday: “They thought they would be immune to arrest within their newspapers.” A pro-government newspaper, Star published this headline: “[Erdogan] Entered Their Lairs.”
Police raided the country’s largest newspaper and its editor was taken live on TV - glowing evidence of how far the government could go in crushing dissent with almost sheer impunity. A lack of support within Turkey presents another set of challenges for those in danger and shows how the public is influenced by TV networks that are owned by Erdogan’s son-in-law.
The raid on the newspaper prompted reactions from all around the world. The White House expressed concerns while the European Union condemned the assault on journalists as “unacceptable.” International press advocacy bodies as well as rights groups denounced the arrest of journalists and called on the Turkish government to ensure that investigations are conducted in a swift and consistent way.
“We have no concern about what the EU might say. Whether the EU accepts us as members or not, we have no such concern. Please keep your wisdom to yourself,” Erdogan responded to the EU on Monday. Why would Erdogan be troubled over what the EU or the U.S. say about the way he rules the country? Neither EU nor the U.S. has any effective or substantial leverage with which to punish Erdogan when he acts in ways that many see as unacceptable. He has successfully demonstrated that his moves go unpunished, no matter what allegations are thrown against him.
Not a power struggle
Some news outlets in the West have characterized the recent developments in Turkey as a “power struggle.” They assumed that sympathizers of the Gülen movement are very powerful within the judiciary and police and that Erdogan is wrestling to take control of parts of the state that are controled by Gülen. If that is true, why could the Gülen movement not help halt a full-fledged blitz of the authorities on the Gülen movement from its schools and dorms. Another case in point: In judicial elections in October, a pro-government bloc won an overwhelming majority in the top judicial body - a clear example that sympathizers of the Gülen movement within the judiciary have little clout, if any.
Because the government subdues anyone who sides with the Gülen movement, a deafening silence accompanied the crackdown. And as the world has viewed the process as a “power struggle,” no one abroad wanted to “take part” in this “power struggle.” But as the clampdown hit the media close to the Gülen movement, the international community suddenly stood up to say “stop” to Ankara. Sunday’s raid, for the first time, demonstrated to the world that Erdogan’s crackdown has the signs of a witch-hunt that takes its toll on millions who promote democratic values, cherish freedoms and want to live in a society that put its leaders accountable during wrongdoings.
The Gülen movement is not without sin, in my view. No one is perfect. But being at odds with Erdogan could not justify a ruthless crackdown on his movement.
The media is a barometer for democracy in any country. Turkey was already infamous for its intolerance to journalists, but raiding a newspaper is a new step for a country that had once been touted as a model for other Arabs, but now represents one of the failed cases of a Muslim democracy.
Published on Al-Arabiya, 16 December 2014, Tuesday