The Turkish government does not have a great record on media freedom. Earlier this year, leaked phone recordings revealed the president (he was prime minister at the time), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, giving directions to a board member of a national media network about its television and newspaper coverage. Several well-known journalists were fired after Erdogan criticised them publicly.
It was in this context that on 14 December, Turkish police raided the offices of media outlets linked to a US-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gülen. The country's best-selling newspaper, Zaman, was raided, as was the Samanylou television network. According to the semi-official Anatolia news agency, 31 warrants for arrest were issued and 23 people were ultimately detained. These included senior police officers, as well as the editor of Zaman and the head of Samanylou, and several leading screenwriters.
The arrests mark a stepping up of Erdogan's battle against Gülen and his supporters. A former ally of the president, Gülen is now a vocal critic of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). He lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. The current high tensions go back to a corruption investigation last December that targeted Erdogan's inner circle. This was the most extensive and sensational investigation of its type in Turkey's recent history, and it led to dozens of detentions, including well-known business people, ministers' families and top bureaucrats. Four cabinet ministers were forced to resign.
Gülen is a mainstream Sunni preacher, with millions of followers in Turkey and abroad. Erdogan accuses his movement, commonly known in Turkey as Hizmet, of orchestrating a plot to bring down his government and of running a "parallel structure" via supporters in the judiciary, police, media and other state institutions. He alleges that the cleric's followers were behind the corruption allegations, a charge that Gülen denies, and has sought to extradite the preacher from the US to Turkey. Critics of Gülen allege that his movement controls Zaman, Samanyolu, the private Bank Asya and the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists. Gülen and his supporters maintain that the movement is civic in nature and does not have any political aspirations.
The arrests of journalists follows the arrests of police officers involved in the corruption allegations, and the passing of a new bill in February that gives the justice ministry greater sway over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, an independent body that appoints members of the judiciary. It is not immediately clear what the journalists are actually accused of, but Istanbul's police chief said that the charges involve "forgery and slander".
Erdogan's move has drawn widespread international condemnation. Human Rights Watch said that the arrests would harm media freedom, while the International Federation of Journalists called it a "brazen assault on press freedom and Turkish democracy". The Committee to Protect Journalists called the move "heavy-handed" and the International Press Institute said that the arrests were "part of a trend by Turkey's government in recent years to use terrorism accusations to bring its critics to heel". The European Union, which Turkey has long sought to join, was also critical, with top officials releasing a statement saying that the raids and arrests "are incompatible with the freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy." The statement added that moving towards membership required "full respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights." Erdogan responded defiantly: "The EU should mind its own business and keep its own opinions to itself. We have no concern about what the EU might say, whether the EU accepts us as members or not."
Ever since the Gezi Park protests in June 2013, Erdogan has been judged to be increasingly paranoid. During the protests, he said that a "global interest-rate lobby" of western bankers, foreign spies and media wanted to oust his party. In December 2013, when he declared his intention to go after the Gülen movement, it was reported that he believed a "Gülen-Israel axis" wanted to unseat him. The arrests of journalists show that the Turkish president will use whatever powers are available to him to go after his critics, and that he has no qualms about alienating his international allies in the process.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.