Marking a new level in the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) fight against the remaining free and independent media outlets, the police raided the building of the İpek Media Group in the early hours of Wednesday, broke in by force and seized the building in İstanbul as journalists under pressure defied oppression until the very last minute.
Koza İpek Holding, which owns two TV stations, two newspapers and one radio channel, has been targeted by the government since Sept. 1, when the police raided the company on alleged charges of having a connection to terrorism, which has become a tool used to oppress the critical voices in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's regime. Although no illegal activity was found, a peace court judge, Yunus Sürer, appointed trustees to 22 companies of Koza İpek Holding, which is owned by Akın İpek, who has openly expressed his sympathy for Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Given the government's open hatred for Gülen, it is not surprising that the İpek family was also targeted by the government via politically motivated investigations. Despite the lack of any evidence of wrongdoing, let alone supporting terrorism, the İpek Koza Holding companies were assumed guilty since an expert's report argued that nothing could be this perfect in a company's record and therefore something had to be wrong.
Following the appointment of trustees on Monday, the police raided the holding's media companies, which are based in the city's central district of Mecidiyeköy. The general manager of Bugün TV, Tarık Toros, posted on Twitter that the police entered the building shortly before 5 a.m. Along with the regular staff on the night shift, executives like Toros were standing vigil at the building since the appointment of the trustee to the TV station. By the time I arrived at the scene at 7 a.m., there were remnants of pepper spray in the air because the police had used tear gas to disperse protesters who had gathered outside the building along with company staff who wanted to prevent the police from entering their workplace without a proper court order. Main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) deputies Mahmut Tanal, Barış Yarkadaş and Eren Erdem were also present, hoping to persuade the police not to carry out this unlawful action. Erdem, a former journalist, reminded the police that interfering with the free media is not acceptable.
While the police tried to break in by literally breaking the main gate of the building, the staff protested by chanting slogans such as “Free media cannot be silenced.” Because of the tear gas, some cameramen worked with gas masks on while others were caught off guard. The morning show host of Kanaltürk, Turan Görüryılmaz, was unable to continue broadcasting because of the tear gas. When I saw him unable to move in front of me, I squeezed lemon, which has proven useful against tear gas, on his face to ease the pain caused by the chemicals. Meanwhile, to inform people who were not able to watch what is going on at the scene on TV, I broadcast the police break in on Periscope, a mobile application that allows live streaming via the Internet. Along with me, some staff from İpek Media did the same, to let the world know about the unlawful takeover of the few independent media outlets left in Turkey.
During the brawl between the police and staff, a reporter, Kamil Maman, and one staff member were detained, arms handcuffed behind their backs, a procedure that is only applied to serious offenders. After the police entered the building, one of the lawyers of the media company protested the excessive use of force and his exclusion from the procedures: What kind of documents will you make them sign without legal supervision?” he asked loudly. The police later allowed the lawyer into the building.
When I entered the newsroom, despite their shock and frustration, the reporters kept themselves busy by informing their viewers about developments as they themselves became the subjects of the news story. Fatih Akalan, a senior editor at Bugün TV, told his colleagues not to be intimidated by any pressure and to continue reporting. However, he shouted at the police and said, “This kind of takeover of a TV station did not happen even during military rule following 1980.”
‘We have not yet said our last words'
Bugün TV General Manager Tarık Toros waited quietly in his room without losing control of management. He told Today's Zaman that he will be on duty until the very last moment and until they have been silenced by the new administration. Live on air, he said these could be the last minutes the TV station broadcasts as an independent channel, but that they as journalists have not yet said their last words.
As trustees held a meeting upstairs with İpek Media management, Toros asked his colleague to be on alert more than ever and to report every single development to the public. CHP Deputy Tanal advised the TV managers to keep a copy of the video footage of the police break-in, in case the new administration tries to erase all record of the incident.
As the hours passed and people heard about the police raid, more people came to protest as many called Toros to go on air live via phone since the police would not let anyone inside the building except for the deputies. In addition to the deputies already present, CHP deputy Şafak Pavey came to support the free media in statements made on live television.
The police cut the broadcast of Kanaltürk and attempted to cut off Bugün TV as well. Toros locked the main control room of the TV and the broadcast was limited to coverage from a small area. All the remaining programs took place from the main control room instead of the regular studios. Many politicians from the opposition parties called to participate in special live coverage, including the Nationalist Movement Party's (MHP) Oktay Vural and the Grand Union Party's (BBP) Mustafa Destici. Later on, HDP Co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş also visited Bugün TV and protested the government takeover.
As of the writing of this column, the vigil at the İpek Media Group continues with the support of a crowd outside the building along with journalists who rushed to their colleagues in solidarity. However, the building is still under siege and people were not allowed inside unless they were employees. As of 4 p.m., the police also cut off the satellite signal of Bugün TV. The channel continues to broadcast via the Internet.
Published on Today's Zaman, 28 October 2015, Wednesday