Turkey’s Erdogan moves against perceived enemies, arresting dozens of media figures

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, July 1, 2014. AP

Two days after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to “overthrow” what he called a “network of treason,” Turkey’s counter-terrorism police on Sunday arrested more than two dozen prominent media and government figures, including the editor of the country’s largest newspaper and the general manager of a major broadcasting group.

The Istanbul prosecutor said all were detained on suspicion of establishing, heading or joining an armed terrorist organization, as well as forgery and slander.

The European Union denounced the media arrests as “incompatible with the freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy.” The U.S. State Department noted that the raids targeted media outlets that are openly critical of the current government and urged Turkey not to violate its “core values” and its “own democratic foundation.”

All of those arrested appeared to have links to Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish religious scholar who once was an ally of Erdogan, but broke with him several years ago and is now living in Pennsylvania.

Among those arrested were Ekram Dumanli, the editor-in-chief of Zaman, Turkey’s largest daily newspaper, with a reported circulation of 1 million, and Hidayet Karaca, the general manager of the Samanyolu Broadcasting group. Seven policeman and the former heads of the Istanbul counter-terror and organized crime departments were also arrested in raids that took place simultaneously in 13 Turkish provinces.

Mustafa Edib Yilmaz, Zaman’s foreign editor, got the word on Twitter early Sunday morning that police were headed to the newspaper’s headquarter not far from Istanbul airport. “I drove like crazy to get here to be here as everything was happening,” he said.

He said when police entered the building at about 7 a.m., hundreds of people outside booed them and chanted, “the free media cannot be silenced.”

He said the police stood in the main lobby, apparently pondering whether to the elevator or walk up the stairs, but instead left. Then at about 2 p.m., with a police helicopter hovering overhead, six or seven police returned to the lobby, marched up the stairs, and descended in the elevator with Dumanli, who had stayed in the building overnight.

“We have no fear as we have no fault,” said the editor as he was being led off.

“The charges are very heavy,” Yilmaz told McClatchy, noting they included depriving people of their liberty and using force. “But truly, this is ridiculous. They could come up with something that makes more sense.”

Erdogan, who’s led Turkey for 12 years, first as prime minister, and since this past summer as president, is regarded as Turkey’s most powerful leader since the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in 1923.

But for the past 18 months, he’s been a leader under siege.

He sent police to confront demonstrators protesting a plan to turn an Istanbul park into a shopping mall and he reassigned scores of police officers and prosecutors throughout the country in response to a burgeoning corruption scandal that featured recordings leaked on YouTube of Erdogan talking with his son, Bilal, about what to do with $30 million that had been hidden in Bilal’s home. The money is widely perceived to be illegal proceeds from unexplained business deals.

Four of his government ministers stepped down after the conversations were revealed.

Throughout it all Erdogan has accused Gulen, who lives in self-exile in the Pocono mountains, of creating a “parallel structure,” infiltrating his followers into the police and the judiciary, wiretapping the prime minister’s phones and then revealing the content.

Last Friday, he again denounced Gulen’s Hizmet or “service” organization as a “parallel structure, which was talking about education, service and benevolence” and said it was involved in “dirty murders.”

“The parallel structure has never acted alone,” he said. “Occasionally even terrorist organizations and their political parties have been carrying out work with this network of treason. But this nation will set its course by its own accord.”

More recently, Erdogan has been heading in an increasingly eccentric direction, proclaiming that Muslims discovered the Western hemisphere, women are inherently unequal to men, and insisting that old Turkish, which Ataturk abolished, and which uses Arabic script and many borrowed words from Farsi and Arabic, be taught once again in the public schools.

Of all the detentions Sunday, perhaps the oddest was of directors, producers and script writers for two different television series that were hits on Samanyolu several years ago. They were accused of “committing a crime against the constitutional order,” Fikret Duran, the lawyer for the media group said.

The most prominent of those is Salih Asan, the producer of three major series on Samanyolu.

Asan’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as a beam of light in the series “Falcons” reportedly angered Erdogan, who was quoted by the Hurriyet newspaper as saying “These people are so immoral that they could put our Prophet in a truck.”

“Our nation will never allow them, they will never give them a chance,” the paper quoted Erdogan as saying.