March 13, 2016

Seizure of Turkish newspapers hits more than press freedom

Nick O'Gara

Demonstrators are dispersed by tear gas. Since the government takeover, nothing critical of the ruling party appears in the pages Today’s Zaman.

The sidewalks leading to the building housing the Turkish English-language daily Today’s Zaman are crowded with police barricades.

My former colleagues at the newspaper walk this route before arriving at the gates, where they are greeted with guards wielding assault rifles. Police now populate the property, smoking and discarding trash and creating a climate of intimidation for those working there.

On March 4, a Turkish court ordered the seizure of Today’s Zaman and its sister publication, Zaman, Turkey’s most highly circulated newspaper.

Later that evening, riot police arrived at the building and deployed tear gas and water cannons against supporters who had gathered to protest the takeover.

Many considered the Zaman group to be one of the last major domestic news organizations in opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP).

Flashback to Dec. 14, 2014. I spent that morning communicating with colleagues about the situation at the paper, where I was scheduled for a shift on the copy desk. Word had leaked the day before that police were set to arrest a number of Zaman journalists.

On my mind was a list of possible punitive consequences for a foreigner working at a news group that had become an enemy in the eyes of Turkey’s ruling party. I felt fear. I stayed home.

Sure enough, that day police entered the building and detained the then-editor-in-chief of Zaman before a crowd of supporters who had gathered with signs reading “Free press cannot be silenced.”

Last week, I thought of the fear that kept me home that day more than a year ago as I breathlessly followed news of the March 4 takeover from my new home of Tucson, watching the spooky real-time images of police occupying its familiar halls.

In the days after the seizure, Today’s Zaman editions fell from 16 pages to 12, then to eight. Columnists were cut. Nothing remotely critical of the government has filtered past the government-appointed trustees who now screen the daily’s pages.

Online searches of the archives are futile. Reportage is replaced with stories or photos acclaiming national success of some kind or another, like the nearly complete third bridge spanning the Bosphorus, surely meant to be seen as another triumph of the AKP.

International press and media-freedom advocacy groups from all over the world condemned the action as a blow to freedom of speech in a country where that right has been steadily eroding.

This is seen by many as another chapter of revenge in a bitter rivalry between the influential Gulen movement, a religious group that follows Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, and President Erdogan’s AKP. Zaman is affiliated with the movement, and was once an ally and powerful voice in the party’s rise to power and success in diminishing the influence of the military.

Over the years the relationship soured, and the group has been besieged on multiple fronts by government efforts to strip it of influence.

Zaman has its skeletons. It has been rightly criticized for, among other things, its support for some of the dubious methods the government used to take power out of the hands of the military. To its credit, it has acknowledged and apologized for some of its errors. Since, it has been one of the only formidable domestic voices of opposition to the ruling party in its undeniable slide toward authoritarianism.

Today’s Zaman was an important source of news during events like the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and has been a source for English speakers to follow the affairs of the country from within and abroad. They placed trust in and gave agency to their diverse foreign staff, many of whom, like me, have no religious or ideological affiliation.

Those who respond to the recent takeover by enumerating Zaman’s past errors are missing the bigger picture. With Zaman and Today’s Zaman now just two more mouthpieces for the government, Turkey has lost two of its last critical voices with the capability to reach wider audiences, and the media landscape becomes more dangerously unvarying.

The loss of independent coverage from within Turkey is not just a matter of free speech.

Turkey is an important NATO ally. Anyone following the horror of the Syrian civil war, the refugee crisis or the battle against the Islamic State group knows Turkey is a major actor in these affairs. Just this week it was in negotiations with the EU over a plan to reduce the flow of migrants and refugees, the details of which are controversial.

Those who applaud Zaman’s seizure are also applauding the general disintegration of a robust free press in Turkey. The future of the region is unclear, and the destruction of press freedoms speaks to a larger pattern that may have dire consequences for that future.

“I think you got out of Turkey just in time,” my former supervisor at Today’s Zaman wrote to me.

There’s a heartbreaking truth to that. As a foreigner, I exercised my option to leave the country I called home for four years to return to a place with remarkable freedom of speech. Most Turks will not have that option.

I can only hope that someday journalists simply doing their jobs will no longer have to weigh their fears in that beautiful country that is losing its way.

Published on Arizona Daily Star, 12 March 2016, Saturday