March 16, 2016

Zaman Editor: “Turkey is hell for journalists”

The EU’s resistance to make Turkey a Member State, has led to a partial cutback of reforms by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Government, suggested Sevgi Akarcesme, the Editor of “Today’s Zaman” , the english speaking version of Turkish “Zaman” newspaper that was seized by Erdoğan on 4 March 2016.

New Europe spoke with Akarcesme in Brussels, at a press event organized to raise awareness about the lack of press freedom in Turkey. Akarcesme appeared afraid to return to Turkey after the shock of the newspaper’s seizure and the attacks she personally received, while being present in Zaman building, as invaders were ordered to “sweep this woman away from this floor”. While discussing what could be different if Turkey had earlier joined the EU and if all this containment was false, she refused to blame only one side:

NE: Do you believe things would be different if Turkey was already part of the EU? It seems you partially blame the EU for the lack of reforms that the slow accession process has brought. Is that so?

SA: It is not only the EU’s faults, it takes two to tango. Everybody knows that the Turkish Government is losing interest in the European bid and is turning more oppressive under Erdoğan. It has become a one man rule, but since the refugee crisis the EU has become more and more silent to Erdoğan, has been compromising more from its values and only contributes to a deterioration of the situation in Turkey.

NE: In terms of informing Turkish people of what has been happening since Zaman was seized, what are your plans?

SA: We have Twitter; social media is pretty much the only medium we are left with at the moment. Most of the TV stations are pro-Government and are controlled by the Government in Turkey, so it’s very difficult to reach the majority of people through TV stations. Most of the critical newspapers are also pro-government, the critical newspapers are one by one seized by the Government. Unfortunately there is a very, very severe, critical condition in terms of free and independent media in Turkey. There are always websites and news portals, so we might continue, we might not have a print publication. Everything is so new, we are still trying to recover from the trauma we are experiencing in Turkey at the moment.

NE: What do you expect from the next EU Summit?

SA: I don’t expect much from the EU in the short term much, as long as the refugee crisis continues, but if it was up to me I would expect from the EU to stand up for its own values and care about media freedom, which is the pillar of democracy in a country.

Zaman’s seizure: How everything started

Akarcesme still officially remains the Editor of “Today’s Zaman” and appeared unwilling to quit, in order not to give up her legal rights. Akarcesme described the grave situation of deterioration of democracy in the last 2-3 years. “I feel much more relieved being in a democratic country”, said Akarcesme from Brussels, describing the situation of Zaman’s seizure, following corruption investigations on Erdoğan’s family and Ministers.

Following 17 and 25 December 2013 Zaman editions featuring corruption investigations, Akarcesme was imprisoned because as a result of her tweets, as Erdoğan’s dogma was to silence the media and distract the attention from the public. Other media were seized, some became pro-Erdoğan, “even the so-called mainstream media are not doing journalism, but covering government agenda”. When Zaman was seized, TV was playing “penguin documentaries instead of the events”.

“It has started with Gezi”, Akarcesme continues, resulting with the majority of the people not even being aware of what’s going on. “Two critical TV stations were literally unplugged on air”, and now only a minor local one is left, that is struggling to cover the country. “Ιt was a matter of time [until] the Government would go after Zaman”, she adds, as on 14 December 2014 the Editor in chief was detained, accused of forming a terrorist organization. “I am grateful to our readers”, as the majority of Zaman’s readers forfeited their subscription after Government took over, resulting to the next edition printing with a big smile of Erdoğan on the first page.

The people who took over Zaman “were like looters, but they had no idea what to do with it”, and starting from Saturday they removed critical columns from the print edition that was ready. After Zaman, “they will go after Cumhuriyet”, Akarcesme believes. “Turkey is hell for journalists, it should be hell for people soon”, she underlines. “EU used to act as an anchor a decade ago”, but now the “EU is turning a blind eye to Erdoğan” as German Chancellor, Angela Merkel provided him a golden opportunity with her visit, allowing him to feed Turks with the story that the “EU needs us”. “This is the basic mentality of the Turkish people at the moment”.

Oliver Money – Kyrle, Associate Secretary of International Federation of Journalists, talked about the difficulties journalists face while working in Turkey, presenting a picture of instability and insecurity, even if over a year ago there was a sense that all this would calm down. “There are 34 journalists in jail”, he said and set a question to the EU: “How are you going to address this, where on the agenda is the fundamental press freedom? These are the questions we want answers”.

Zaman’s Brussels bureau chief Selcuk Gultasli said about Erdoğan: “The Prince of Europe took away my Zaman newspaper”, questioning “what is the EU doing on this” and answering that EU has always been a catalyst in Turkey and so the EU has not being doing anything. “Europe has never been so hopeless”, he underlined, blaming Merkel’s position and postponing of chapter openings in the past. “Chapter 21 was postponed in June and now we are talking about opening 5 chapters” with Turkey not meeting the criteria. “The progress report was postponed twice and came out 10 days after the elections” Gultasli said, referring to Jean-Claude Juncker’s and Donald Tusk’s meeting with Erdoğan and their debate in Antalya, Turkey, where Juncker appeared deceived as Erdoğan had asked to postpone the report, according to Greek news media, with Erdoğan declining that the report’s delay allowed him to win the elections. “We greeted you like a prince in Brussels”, said Juncker according to Gultasli.

Published on New Europe, 15 March 2016, Tuesday