December 16, 2014

Unraveling the facts of the unprecedented crackdown on Turkish media

The largest ever crackdown on Turkish media on Sunday, with the arbitrary detention of the best-selling newspaper's editor-in-chief and a leading national TV network's general director, raised a lot of concerns at home and abroad about whether Turkey is sliding fast on the scale of democracy.

The hollow investigation, the timing of which was motivated by the government's instrumentalization of the judicial system, brought forward lots of questions as well as fictional claims that have further muddied the waters.

What follows are some common questions and answers about the facts of the case that may help set the record straight for observers of this major attack on the right to a free press in Turkey.

1) Why is the Turkish government cracking down on the media?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his allies in the government see control of the media as the key to sustaining their rule. Many media outlets had already been cowed into silence under intense government pressure, with threats of audits, and financial penalties or through lucrative contracts disbursed by the government to media owners. Now, the government is trying to control what is left of the remaining free, independent and critical media through blatant abuse of the criminal justice system that came on the heels of recent legislation to dominate the judiciary with partisan loyalists. The pressure has intensified ever since Erdoğan and his family members were incriminated in massive corruption investigations last year involving billions of dollars.

2) Why was the Zaman daily raided?

Zaman is the bestselling newspaper in the nation, with a million subscribers. Its circulation exceeds the total number of copies sold by all the government-controlled, led or subsidized dailies. It represents almost a quarter of the print media circulation in Turkey. Since it remained free, independent and highly critical of the government regarding corruption, hate speech, discrimination, profiling and other major wrongdoings, it has been openly targeted by Erdoğan and his allies for a year now.

Erdoğan has launched a series of defamation cases against editors of the paper, called on the public not to purchase the paper, accused it of conspiring with international media and global powers -- including the US and the EU -- against Turkey, and attacked its editors by calling them traitors. The detention of Zaman Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı is the last straw in a politically orchestrated and baseless criminal investigation. If the government succeeds in intimidating the largest media outlet, all others will toe the government line.

Perhaps Zaman's editorial line of advocating the views of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who is also critical of corruption in the government and very much opposed to the abuse of religion at the hands of political Islamists who use it to advance political goals and to enrich themselves, is another reason behind the government crackdown. Erdoğan accused the Islamic scholar of conspiring against the government by instigating the graft probe, yet he has failed to present any evidence to back up his claims for a year.

3) What are the charges against the Zaman editor-in-chief?

The prosecutor charged him with attempting to stage a coup against the government and of being a member of an unidentified illegal, armed group under the anti-terror laws. It begs the question how the editor would be able take over the government with his pen, printing ink and paper. The evidence cited for the charges is two op-ed pieces and one report published in the newspaper some four years ago. The articles were talking about an al-Qaeda-affiliated group called Tahşiyeciler (roughly translated as Annotators) that was investigated by the police for advocating violence and planning to assassinate political and religious leaders of the country. Two columnists who wrote critically about al-Qaeda in general, and this Turkish group in particular, were also questioned by the prosecutor. Zaman covered the police operation against the group in 2010, just as dozens of other media outlets did. The police seized guns, rifles, bombs and ammunition during the raid on one of the safe houses used by Tahşiyeciler.

There are additional charges, such as document forgery. It is not known at this stage where these charges originated. The lawyers of those detained have been denied access to the case file and to their clients who are under custody, so it is difficult to learn the entire content of the investigation file.

4) What is this Tahşiyeciler group?

Turkey learned about Tahşiyeciler on Jan. 22, 2010, when police raided the homes and offices of dozens of people across Turkey as part of an anti-al-Qaeda sweep. The police discovered three hand grenades, one smoke bomb, seven handguns, 18 hunting rifles, electronic parts for explosives, knives and a large cache of ammunition.

The operation conducted on Tahşiyeciler was sanctioned by Oğuz Kaan Köksal, a former national police chief and current Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy. The probe revealed that the terrorist group had sent close to 100 people to Afghanistan for armed training. According to seized video footage that was aired on the CNN Türk and Haber Türk TV channels at the time, Mehmet Doğan, the leader of the group, was heard calling for violent jihad. In the footage, he is heard saying that the heads of the Turkish government and of the religious authority are foreigners and should be shot dead.

“I'm telling you to take up your guns and kill them,” he said in the footage. He was also heard asking his followers to build bombs and mortars in their homes, claiming that religion allows such practices. “If the sword is not used, then this is not Islam,” he said.

Doğan said it was a requirement for all Muslims to respond to then al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's armed fight in Afghanistan, and even fabricated sayings of the Prophet that suggested Muslims should join bin Laden's army. Doğan also said that Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India are not governed by Shariah, and predicted that they would soon be wiped out.

It was determined that intelligence agencies had been keeping tabs on the group's leaders since 2000. The group believes Turkey is a country governed by a non-Islamic government, and advocates violent methods of taking over the government.

The al-Qaeda-affiliated Tahşiyeciler group leader Doğan was let go after being detained for 17 months and his case is still pending.

5) Why is the prosecutor defending an al-Qaeda group?

This is hard to understand. Editors who published reports on the group, columnists and scriptwriters who wrote about Tahşiyeciler as well as police investigators who examined the group were all charged with attempts to topple the Turkish government by defaming a group with ties to the al-Qaeda network in Turkey.

The producer, director, screenwriter and graphic designer of the popular TV series “Tek Türkiye” (One Turkey), which featured the fight against terrorist groups in Turkey -- including al-Qaeda -- were also detained in Sunday's operations. They were later let go, after questioning. Former Police Chief Tufan Ergüder, who served as deputy police chief in İstanbul in 2010 and who investigated the group back then, was also detained.

Since the prosecutor is doing the bidding of political authorities, this should not come as a surprise. On Monday, Erdoğan defended al-Qaeda group leader Doğan, saying that Doğan had been victimized by what he called a parallel structure, a derogatory term he uses for the Hizmet movement, a civic movement inspired by Gülen. Government spokesman Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç also confirmed on Monday that the current investigation was based on a complaint made by a suspect in the al-Qaeda-affiliated Tahşiyeciler group.

This is hardly surprising, given the pattern of behavior of the Turkish government, dominated by political Islamists, in aiding and abetting radical groups inside and outside of Turkey. The government was caught red-handed earlier this year when military police, acting on a prosecutor's orders, intercepted trucks carrying illegal arms to radical groups in Syria. Police and military officials, the prosecutor and other government officials who were involved in halting this arms trafficking were quickly reassigned by the government and some of them were charged with espionage.

A key al-Qaeda suspect, Halis Bayancuk, also known as Abu Hanzala, who was detained during raids in January along with dozens of others, was released in October by a special court that was established recently by a government-endorsed bill to punish critics and defend supporters of the government. The judge, prosecutor and police officials who were involved in detaining Hanzala and other high-profile al-Qaeda suspects were all quickly removed by the government after raids.

6) Where is the smoking gun that ties Gülen to the investigation?

There is no smoking gun, but rather a creative and imaginative scenario that seems to have been invented by the prosecutor to try to link Gülen to the investigation. Gülen, who has been living in the US since 1999, has been a vocal critic of terrorism and violence used in the name of Islam for decades. He came out very critically against al-Qaeda terrorism and said, "One of the people in the world I hate the most is [Osama] bin Laden, because he has spoiled the bright appearance of Islam.” He has also criticized the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) very harshly, denouncing it as a terrorist group that has nothing to do with Islam. He also slammed the Turkish al-Qaeda group Tahşiyeciler, which advocates violence, killing and bombings to overtake the government.

Since the current investigation targeting journalists originated on a complaint from an al-Qaeda suspect belonging to Tahşiyeciler who accused Gülen of defaming the group and making it a target of investigation by law enforcement officials, Erdoğan is pushing his loyalist prosecutor and judges to add Gülen's name to the investigation file. In other words, Gülen, a vocal critic of Erdoğan, was made part of the investigation in a political witch hunt. Erdoğan has often declared publicly that he will go after Gülen with all the powers of the government, including the judiciary.

Tahşiyeciler differs fundamentally from the Nurcu community that was established by Said Nursi in Turkey in the first half of the 20th century, which advocates education and is strongly opposed to violence. They branched out from Nurcu groups when they came under Salafi influence and quickly became radicalized. The group's name comes from their self-declared right to make footnotes and annotations in books written by Said Nursi.

There are dozens of Nurcu groups in Turkey that have various branches, including a social movement called Hizmet, inspired by Gülen some 40 years ago. None of them advocate violence, as Said Nursi openly declared that he was against all kinds of violence. Tahşiyeciler apparently distorted Nursi's teachings and interpreted them to serve the ideals of al-Qaeda.

Tahşiyeciler panicked, however, when Gülen's critical remarks about the group in April 2009 were widely covered in the media. In a rush, Doğan ordered his followers to denounce violence and to disassociate themselves from the name Tahşiyeciler. Some members of the group have changed their phone numbers to avoid wiretapping.

Published on Today's Zaman, 16 December 2014, Tuesday