October 28, 2015

Gov’t takeover of Koza İpek signals further attacks on critical media in Turkey

The corporate headquarters of Koza İpek Holding, which owns five critical media outlets, were raided by the riot police on Tuesday who used pepper spray as they entered the building to serve the holding with what opposition voices have said is an unlawful decision to take over the company management in order to silence the free media less than a week before the Nov. 1 general election.

The remaining media outlets that are critical and independent of the government line are also under the risk of unlawful seizure. Just like Koza İpek, the Doğan and Feza media groups are facing anti-terror probes through government-backed judicial investigations.

The opposition and a number of lawyers and intellectuals were up in arms on Tuesday, strongly criticizing the government for the crackdown on major media outlets in order to muzzle critical and independent voices ahead of the election, with hundreds of supporters flocking to the holding's headquarters in Ankara and its media offices in İstanbul.

Many in Turkey are concerned that the government crackdown on critical and independent media has reached such a point that takeovers will soon engulf other media groups. Government whistleblower Fuat Avni claimed back in August that Koza İpek and later the Aydın Doğan media group would be seized by the government.

On Tuesday, Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Ankara deputy Aydın Ünal, who is also President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's former top adviser and speechwriter, publicly declared that the government would go after other media groups such as Sözcü, Hürriyet, Cumhuriyet and Zaman after the election.

Speaking on the pro-government A Haber TV channel on Tuesday, Ünal vowed to deal with other critical media groups after the election. “We'll definitely call them to account after Nov. 1. Dailies like Sözcü have been insulting us every day. If you say something, it is touted as interference in the press. We are not in a very comfortable environment but all of them will be brought to account after Nov. 1,” he said.

Claiming that he had insider information, Democratic Left Party (DSP) Chairman Masum Türker spoke to told Bugün TV on Tuesday to say that the government's next move is to take over the conglomerate of Aydın Doğan, who owns the country's largest media group including the Hürriyet, Posta and Hürriyet Daily News newspapers and TV stations Kanal D and CNN Turk.

The Doğan Media Group has previously been threatened with confiscation by Erdoğan, high-ranking government officials and pro-government media spin-doctors. The seizure of Koza İpek has proved that these claims are not far-fetched.

The police who were instructed to formally serve Monday's decision to appoint a trustee to manage all of the two dozen companies owned by Koza İpek were unable to enter the premises of media offices in İstanbul after lawyers who were present challenged the authenticity of the court document because it did not bear the original signature. The company lawyers said they were ready to turn over the management provided that court order is served properly according to the law.

In a similar effort, the lawyers attempted to block a police team from entering the company's headquarters in Ankara for several minutes, also claiming that the police officers were not legally authorized to present the decision and implement it. However, backed by riot police in gas masks, the police officers broke down the gates, used pepper spray on the lawyers and made their way into the building by force.

Judge Yunus Süer of the Ankara 5th Criminal Court of Peace ruled on Monday for the takeover of the administration of the holding's 22 companies, including two television stations, two newspapers and one radio station that have a critical editorial position toward the government after a request from Prosecutor Musa Yücel.

The decision to effectively surrender major media outlets to the interim AK Party government has sparked strong criticism, with a number of lawyers calling the move “arbitrary” and “unlawful” and warning of serious consequences.

Turkish Bar Association (TBB) Chairman Metin Feyzioğlu defined the takeover of Koza İpek Holding management as “the seizure of media outlets that are critical of government by the palace,” referring to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on Twitter on Tuesday.

“The management of the companies [belonging to Koza İpek Holding] has been taken over and individuals designated by a judge have been appointed to manage the companies. However, there is a detail that should not go unnoticed: Most of these trustees are affiliated with the AK Party. … Don't try to fool people. All these occurrences are viewed as the seizure of the critical media by the palace,” Feyzioğlu said.

The people who have been appointed to lead these companies are either members of the AK Party or people who work for pro-government media groups, even though the relevant mechanism in Turkish law requires trustees to be completely independent and objective.

The so-called courts of peace are a new feature of the Turkish justice system, established by the government when Erdoğan was prime minister as specially authorized courts with extraordinary powers that contradict the universal rule of law and take decisions under the influence of the AK Party.

Main opposition Republican Peoples' Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has called on Koza İpek Holding CEO Akın İpek to show solidarity with him in the face of what he called the unlawful decision to seize his companies. He earlier called for the abolition of the criminal courts of peace, which he said were a tool in the hands of the AK party government to punish critics and opponents. İpek remarked on Monday night that the government had seized the companies after failing to find anything illegal during a previous investigation into the company's affairs.

Taking over critical media outlets just before the election will not only prevent the opposition political parties from communicating their messages but also give a distinct advantage to the AK Party, which already enjoys the support of dozens of pro-government media outlets, according to opposition politicians who visited Koza İpek's media offices on Tuesday in a show of support.

CHP lawmaker Barış Yarkadaş said on Tuesday that the decision is completely arbitrary and illegitimate. "This operation, which is being carried out without a [real] court order, is arbitrary, null and void and illegitimate," he said, adding that the move is the latest attempt by the government and President Erdoğan to silence critical media outlets. Another CHP lawmaker, lawyer Mahmut Tanal, said that the decision lacks any legal grounds and is simply serving political ends. “The AK Party is creating instability to change the agenda and prevent the public from learning the truth,” he said.

The US Embassy in Ankara has also joined the growing chorus of those expressing concern over the takeover of Koza İpek Holding's companies. “The US believes strongly that freedom of press/expression are universal rights. … When there is a reduction in the range of viewpoints available to citizens, especially before an election, it is a matter of concern,” the embassy wrote on its Twitter account on Tuesday.

Prominent journalists, columnists, editors-in-chief and press freedom advocacy groups have also raised their concerns over the government-backed court decision to seize Koza İpek Holding and visited its media offices in İstanbul and Ankara on Tuesday in solidarity with the journalists in the group.

Last week, a delegation of the world's leading watchdogs for press freedom ended an unprecedented emergency press freedom mission to Turkey, expressing solidarity with Turkish journalists and calling for an end to the aggressive oppression of the media that it said was hurting Turkish democracy. The joint coalition is the first of its kind to unite leading watchdogs that included representatives from the International Press Institute (IPI), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Article 19, the Index on Censorship and the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN).

Never before have these organizations acted together for an extensive mission. The coalition made rounds to political actors and newspapers in Turkey on an emergency visit to the country prior to the upcoming election. "Representatives of participating international, regional and local groups dedicated to press freedom and free expression find that pressure on journalists operating in Turkey has severely escalated in the period between parliamentary elections held June 7 and the upcoming elections," the mission said in a declaration.

Published on Today's Zaman, 27 October 2015, Tuesday