December 16, 2014

Raids on media draw harsh criticism from business groups

Sunday's raids on Turkey's largest daily, Zaman, and the private Samanyolu TV channel have prompted outrage among the country's prominent business groups, which have shared concerns over media freedom and doubts of whether the operations aim to cover up major graft and probe allegations ahead of the first anniversary of last year's corruption investigations into the government.

Police forces carried out a crackdown on Zaman and Samanyolu on Sunday, arresting 31 people, including Zaman Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı and Hidayet Karaca, the head of Samanyolu. The operations came on the heels of the first anniversary of corruption investigations that were made public on Dec. 17 and 25 of last year, implying that the government wants to prevent the allegations from being revived in the media and in street protests. The investigations last December implicated several ministers and dozens of pro-government businessmen.

The Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (TÜSİAD), a top business union, emphasized in a press release on Monday that a legal process concerning media freedom has just started. The statement added that political lawsuits damage trust in justice. "Problems that have been experienced in recent years concerning the manner of hearings of lawsuits with political characters and the principle of [the right to] a fair trial have damaged the [public's] trust in [Turkey's] laws and its justice system," the statement read.

TÜSİAD also stated that the country has experienced significant problems related to the freedom of speech and media, and that Turkey's image has been tarnished. Underlining that Sunday's operations concern media freedom in Turkey, the association emphasized the importance of complying with the right to a fair trial and transparency in legal hearings.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) warned in a press release on Monday that the government's actions negatively affecting businessmen and press freedoms will be a source of fear for investors, and stated that it is the first civil coup of the "New Turkey," a term widely used by government officials to describe their populist campaigns, which pledge freedom in all areas.

"We have been following [news of] the arrests of the directors of newspaper and TV stations, script writers, film producers and police officers in astonishment. In order to obscure the Dec. 17 and 25 graft and probe claims and in order to keep the public occupied with an artificial agenda, the government has carried out perception operations again and again, and innocent people have been arbitrarily arrested and detained," the statement read, adding: "Following the [recent] 'regulation of reasonable suspicion' amendment [which changes the requirements for search and seizure warrants], the operation was commenced, and the first civil coup of the 'New Turkey' has taken place. The blow being dealt to the media is a strike against democracy and the rule of law."

The statement also highlighted that media executives should be applauded for maintaining positive attitudes since the detentions.

Speaking to Today's Zaman on Sunday, Federation of Aegean and Mediterranean Industrialists and Businesspeople (ESİDEF) President Mustafa Özkara said media freedom is a fundamental right and that Turkey does not deserve to have pressure put on the media and on the public. Highlighting that Turkey's image has been tarnished by such attempts, Özkara stated that the operations aimed at the media have affected all public spheres.

Ankara Businessmen and Industrialists' Association (ANKİSAD) head Harun Akca also commented on the recent developments, noting that in order to draw investments into the country, it is necessary to maintain an environment of trust. Incidents that abuse the supremacy of the law in Turkey negatively affect the country's image in Europe, the United States and other developed countries.

Underlining that the detentions are based only on claims, Murat Akyüz, an executive board member of the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TİM), stated his wish for the arrestees to be released immediately. Akyüz said the public should stand united and maintained that the current situation should end soon, as the country needs its media organs.

Uğur Dumankaya, the chair of leading Turkish construction company Dumankaya, said the operations against the media executives would definitely pose problems in investments.

Standard Bank's head of emerging markets (EM) research, Tim Ash, said in an email to Today's Zaman that checks and balances in the current Justice and Development Party (AK Party) administration had gradually been eroded over the past few years. The party's election success has seen it capture all the main levers of power in the country, including Parliament, the executive and the presidency, according to Ash, and the party will eventually dominate the media, big businesses, the military, the police, the judiciary and the universities.

Ash also underlined that Turkish assets could come under selling pressure as investors sell EM across the board, and focus on any perceived vulnerability in EM countries. For Turkey, this vulnerability will still be its dependence on short-term hot money financing to fund even a reduced current account deficit (CAD), and it might actually drop to 3.5 percent of GDP next year, Ash stated. He added that, in this environment, politicians need to be careful not to give investors any reason to sell EM credits, and that Turkish politicians should be focusing on building defenses against what looks set to be a challenging 2015, especially by not partaking in domestic political trench warfare.

Mentioning Turkey's path to the European Union, Ash wrote: “I wonder if we will look back and see this day as the final death of Turkey's EU accession bid -- which was already on the back-burner from all sides. The AKP [AK Party] administration is going to have to work really hard now to push through a reform agenda to get Turkey's EU accession bid back on track. Personally I have found Zaman to be amongst the better/more credible/informative news sources in Turkey in terms of its coverage of the economy-related issues.”

Published on Today's Zaman, 15 December 2014, Monday