The virtual control he already has of a majority of Turkey’s newspapers and TV stations apparently isn’t enough for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On Friday, with the zeal of its despotic leader, his government seized my paper, Today’s Zaman, and its parent, the Turkish-language Zaman, which is the highest-circulating daily in the country. Together, these titles were two of the few remaining independent voices inside Turkey — and Today’s Zaman, in particular, was a reliable English-language news source for diplomats, academics and expatriates.
On Friday, a government-controlled court appointed trustees to take over the newspapers in what amounts to a politically motivated assault. At midnight, protesters faced tear gas and water cannons as riot police stormed our Istanbul headquarters.
The authorities used power tools to force open the iron gate to the building. The following day, our Internet connection was cut off to stop staff members from working on a special edition about the takeover. Since then, the authorities have been unplugging the newspapers’ servers, destroying our digital archive.
Some hours after the raid, I told the police officer smoking a cigarette outside the main gate, “This is a nonsmoking area.” He replied: “Not anymore.” That response underscores a broader shift in Turkey: a dangerous trajectory toward an end of the rule of law.
It’s bad enough that more than 20 Turkish journalists are behind bars. But Friday will be remembered as the day when media freedoms were even more severely curtailed, in flagrant violation of the Constitution.
In November, two prominent Turkish journalists, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, senior editors of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, were arrested on charges of aiding an armed terrorist organization and publishing material that threatened state security. They were released last month, after the constitutional court ruled that their rights had been violated, but still face trial and, if convicted, possible life sentences. Mr. Erdogan said he had “no respect” for the court decision that led to their release.
This pressure is not a recent thing. In December 2014, state authorities detained Zaman’s editor in chief at the time, Ekrem Dumanli, as part of a systematic crackdown on government critics. My predecessor as editor in chief of Today’s Zaman, Bulent Kenes, was imprisoned last October for critical Twitter comments. I myself received a suspended jail sentence late last year for somebody else’s response to one of my tweets.
Why have we been targeted by the president? According to the court order, these newspapers are accused of disseminating “terrorist propaganda” and aiding terrorist organizations. This has become a convenient catchall accusation for clamping down on government critics.
In the past, Zaman and Today’s Zaman supported the Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party’s pro-Western and democracy-oriented policies, as well as its efforts to introduce reforms that would pave the way toward Turkish membership in the European Union. Since the beginning of this decade, however, Mr. Erdogan and his party have become increasingly authoritarian.
Take, for example, the police’s brutal response to the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul that arose after the uprooting of trees and the construction of a shopping mall. The protests attracted worldwide news coverage and elicited criticism from Turkey’s most steadfast Western allies.
In March 2014, Mr. Erdogan, who was then Turkey’s prime minister (he was elected president later that year), seemed to announce the nature of the new rule — one that involves silencing all forms of dissent — when he called for social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube to be shut down. He went on to describe Twitter as “the worst menace to society.”
The true oppression began in 2013 after two damning corruption inquiries resulted in several cabinet ministers being forced out. Trying to turn attention away from the graft allegations, Mr. Erdogan accused critics of being part of a “parallel structure” organized by the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen and his Hizmet movement that was seeking to overthrow him. A witch hunt followed against bureaucrats, businesses, journalists, teachers, philanthropists and ordinary citizens with perceived sympathies for Mr. Gulen, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.
His sermons were published in Zaman, but Mr. Gulen has no official ties with the media group that owns the newspapers. Yet the court order that enabled the seizure of Zaman and Today’s Zaman argued, without providing any evidence, that Mr. Gulen controlled the newspapers. Many of my colleagues are inspired by his peaceful, moderate teaching — as are millions of people around the world — but it is an insult to their intelligence and integrity to suggest they are under his control.
This may be the last article I write as the editor in chief of Today’s Zaman, as I objected to the new administration’s censorship on the day they turned Zaman into an official mouthpiece with a pro-government cover article. The world must tell the Erdogan regime that enough is enough.
As we saw in the court ruling on Mr. Dundar and Mr. Gul, which came after the American vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., expressed support for the two journalists, the international community still has leverage over Turkey. Merely showing concern for press freedom and civil liberties in Turkey while turning a blind eye to violations for the sake of business and regional deals may pay off for now, but unless the West takes firm action to check Mr. Erdogan’s slide into authoritarian rule, it risks losing a stable ally and rare democracy in a Muslim-majority nation.
*The editor in chief of Today’s Zaman.
Published on The New York Times, 8 March 2016, Tuesday