March 7, 2016

Erdogan, prince of Europe, took my newspaper Zaman

Selçuk Gültaşlı*

Yesterday, I was told not to send my weekly column that I have been writing from Brussels for the last 14 years. I have not been sacked yet but the AKP government has just confiscated my newspaper, the largest circulation newspaper of Turkey, Zaman.

It is not only Zaman that has been confiscated but also Today’s Zaman (the English language daily of the group), Cihan News Agency and Aksiyon weekly. The executive editor in chief of Zaman, Mr. Abdulhamid Bilici was removed from his office by the anti-terror police and was sacked instantly.

Apparently, those who published the daily’s print version were not able to stop the website. Instead, they pulled out the plug. When you click on the website, you read in Turkish that the website will be back soon with "high quality and more objective news".

We did not have to wait long to figure out what they meant by "more objective news". The headline of Zaman a day after being occupied was reporting the good news of the looming opening of the third bridge over Bosporus with a big smiling picture of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Zaman, all of a sudden, started publishing flattering stories on Erdogan and the successes of AKP government. It made no mention of protests outside its offices on Friday and Saturday, when police used tear gas and water cannon on the crowd, injuring many. The biggest Turkish daily that has been critical of Erdogan and the government has been turned into a government mouthpiece overnight.

When European Council president Donald Tusk was in Ankara and tweeting how his meetings with president Erdogan and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu were fruitful, the news that an Istanbul court had taken the decision to confiscate Zaman was already circulating the newsrooms. The violent takeover happened when commissioner Johannes Hahn, responsible for accession talks with Turkey, was still in the country.

It is as if Erdogan wanted to teach a lesson to European leaders. The seizure comes just before the second Turkey-EU summit in four months like a slap in the face of European values.

'Like a prince in Brussels'

On 29 November, just two days before the first ever EU-Turkey summit in the 57-year history of tumultuous relationship, Cumhuriyet daily's editor-in-chief Can Dundar together with the Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul were put in prison. They were released recently thanks to a Constitutional Court decision that infuriated Erdogan.

There are many who argue that Erdogan has been encouraged by low-level cautious criticism from EU leaders.

Despite many warnings, German chancellor Angela Merkel visited Turkey on the eve of the fateful election on 1 November. Moreover, it is an open secret in Brussels that she was instrumental in postponing the damning European Commission progress report on Turkey until after the election. It seems that Erdogan has taken EU’s stance as a blank cheque and green light to go after anyone who is critical of the government or the president.

The minutes of a meeting between Erdogan, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker published last month by the Greek website made it clear what we had long suspected: the EU has been bargaining its values and principles with Erdogan for refugees to be stopped and sheltered in Turkey.

According to the minutes, which were confirmed by Erdogan and not denied by the EU, Juncker reminded Erdogan that he was treated "like a prince in Brussels", referring to his visit to Brussels on 5 October during which he got red-carpet treatment. Turned into a prince by EU leaders, Erdogan moves full steam to stifle any resistance to his one-man rule.

Erdogan’s crusade

Today, as EU leaders sit together with Turkish prime minister Davutoglu, many are calling on European leaders to raise the issue of press freedom in their talks. But, the hopes are slim.

When the leader of the liberals in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, warned EU leaders "not to sell their souls to Turkey", he had a strong point.

"Again we continue to accept empty promises such as the returning of all non-Syrian migrants reaching Greek islands back to Turkey. In other words, we are accepting a deal to return migrants to a country which imprisons journalists, attacks civil liberties, and with a highly worrying human rights situation," he said.

The EU is simply outsourcing its problem to Erdogan at a time when he is doing his best to destabilise his own country. The EU may well end up in a situation where Erdogan might actually outsource his problems to Europe.

The confiscation of Zaman comes after many alarming developments. The so-called trustees closed the two dailies last week, Bugun and Millet of the Ipek Group, which were seized several days before the 1st November elections.

The nationalist TV channel Bengu Turk, together with the pro-Kurdish IMC, were taken out of the Turksat satellite service provider, effectively silencing them. All 13 channels of STV Group were gagged the same way in mid-November, by unplugging it from the satellite.

Erdogan’s crusade is not just against a specific group or ideology. Whoever dares to criticise him is a potential target. After the fall of the largest critical newspaper Zaman, it is now even harder to speak about media freedom in Turkey.

European leaders, when they meet Davutoglu later, should not forget that other remaining critical newspapers are next in line as long as they bargain with the Turkish government without any principles.

*Gultasli is Zaman's Brussels bureau chief (for the time being)

Published on EU Observer, 7 March 2016, Monday