ISTANBUL—Anti-terrorism police put Turkey’s media at the center of an expanding state crackdown today as they stormed the offices of Zaman, one of the country’s highest circulating newspapers, and arrested its Editor-in-Chief, Ekrem Dumanlı.
Raids swept 13 provinces across the country, targeting 31 journalists and police officers in the latest development of a protracted political battle between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist leaning, AK Party and Fethullah Gülen’s opposition Islamic Social Movement.
A Turkish Islamic preacher living in self-imposed exile in the US, Gülen is closely linked to both Zaman and the Samanyolu Media Group, whose head, Hidayet Karaca, was also arrested.
As Human Rights Watch slammed the arrests as looking “like another attempt to crack down on critical media,” a public statement by Istanbul’s prosecutors office accused the detained of “directing an armed terror group,” “forgery” and “slander” as it alluded to coup plot.
However, for journalists and the supporters of the relatively pluralistic Gülen movement who thronged to Zaman offices and later to Istanbul Police HQ, the charges are no more than a political smear intended to justify intimidating the media and silencing dissent.
“Day by day journalists are becoming afraid,” said Zaman photojournalist Mühenna Kahveci as he stood across the street from the police station with hundreds of people chanting and holding signs that read “Free media can’t be silenced.”. His Canon camera dangled by his side and the feeling of uncertainty over what he could now report punctuated everything he said. “The problem is you don’t know what’s going to happen if you report critically,” he added.
Meanwhile, busloads of riot police brandishing long black batons and clad in helmets and armor surrounded the police station 20 yards away.
The arrests, which were exposed on Twitter last Thursday in what was likely a deliberate leak from a sympathetic government insider, come just ahead of the one year anniversary of the start of a damning corruption probe investigating millions of dollars in bribery allegations against senior figures in Erdogan’s party. Zaman has been a strong proponent of the probe and the scandal has been a central plank in the Gülen movement’s campaign against the government.
For many in the media, Zaman readers and Gulen supporters, today’s crackdown is a smoke and mirrors strategy to deflect attention from a scandal the government can’t shake while incarcerating those that keep it in the public eye.
“They want to close this corruption probe so they have gone after Zaman,” said Yavaz Girdip, a political science Ph.D. student and avid Zaman reader who enthusiastically turned out at the protest across from the police station where Dumanlı was being held.
Following the tweet of the coming arrests, Dumanlı publically declared that he and his staff would continue their regular reporting until the police came. It was an attempt to combat a growing chill on free speech in Turkey while placing his newspaper at the center of the debate.
Turkey, a NATO member and European Union aspirant, has a long history of jailing journalists and dissenters. It now appears to be doing so with increasing frequency and Dumanlı’s statement ignited a political spectacle that has embroiled the media.
Yet, for Selahaddin Kokorico, a slender yet stern-looking high school math teacher nervously peering at the towering police compound across the street, the government and those protesting the arrests are responding to different issues.
“For the government, this is a political move [against the Gülen movement]. For us, it’s about rights.”