On the 14th December 2014, Turkish police made 24 arrests during raids at a number of addresses including Turkey’s largest circulating newspaper Zaman headquarters and Samanyolu TV station. Amongst those arrested are Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of Zaman and Hidayet Karaca, Chairman of Samanyolu Media Group as well as producers, scriptwriters and staff of a Samanyolu TV series ‘Tek Turkiye’. In his press release, Istanbul Chief Prosecutor Hadi Salihoglu said that arrest warrants were issued for 31 people on the grounds of “forgery, fabricating evidence and forming an alleged crime syndicate to overtake the sovereignty of the state.” These arrests were carried out as soon as President Erdogan signed into force a controversial ‘Homeland Security Bill’ that lowers the threshold for arrest from ‘strong suspicion based on concrete evidence’ to simply ‘reasonable suspicion’.
This is not the first time in Turkey’s recent history that journalists have been detained on the pretext of connections to terrorist organisations to overtake the regime. Arrests of Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener during the Ergenekon investigations, mass imprisonments of Kurdish journalists and on-going trials media that resisted government pressure during the Gezi Park protests can be cited as some of these examples. Matters have particularly deteriorated since the December 2013 corruption investigations implicating the inner circle of the government became public knowledge. Since then, the government has launched a massive counter offensive shoring up its own media and suppressing all forms of critical media and coverage.
With these arrests Turkey reclaims its number one position as the country to detain the most journalists in the world. Even before these recent arrests it was ranked 154th of 180 in the press freedom index compiled by Reporters without Borders. Zaman and Samanyolu are a handful of media outlets that remain critical of the government. A crackdown on such media is consistent with President Erdogan’s wider efforts to remove dissent and consolidate his power. What’s more, Zaman and Samanyolu are known to have close ties to Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic scholar in self-imposed exile in the United States. Only last week Erdogan vowed to step up the pressure in his effort to eradicate the Gulen-inspired Hizmet movement, whom he claims are working on behalf of a ‘coalition of foreign powers’ to overthrow his government – a worryingly conspiratorial and combative mind-set.
Turkey is a significant partner of the UK, both politically and economically. Only last week PM Cameron paid a two-day visit to Turkey underlying this point and promising greater cooperation in all areas including the sharing of intelligence. With problems in the Middle East and with relations with Russia, an increasingly authoritarian Turkey dismissive of freedom of expression and the rule of law cannot be in the interest of the UK. Neither can these developments be good for Turkey’s ever-dwindling prospects of joining the EU.