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One Newspaper Further From Freedom?

On Friday March 4, the Turkish government seized control of Zaman newspaper, citing not only its status as a mouthpiece for the alleged Fetullah Gulen Terror Organization but also its links to Kurdish terrorists as well. The blatant nature of the attack on one of Turkey’s most prominent papers marks a dramatic, but hardly surprising, escalation in the AKP’s war on critical press.

For a brief moment, the Turkish Supreme Court’s decision in favor of two arrested journalists, as well as the limited support this decision received from some pro-AKP voices, made it appear that perhaps press freedom in Turkey was not a lost cause. The Zaman seizure, however, portends a bleak future, possibly one in which Turkish citizens become increasingly dependent on opposition media based abroad for reliable news.

Zaman’s unique history gives a particular significance to its seizure as well. The paper is indeed affiliated with Fetullah Gulen and his religious movement. As such, it was a strong supporter of the AKP during the party’s first decade in power. Zaman and its columnists were enthusiastic champions of the Ergenekon trials, an effort to punish members of the Turkish military for undemocratic behavior which in time proved to be more of a witch hunt, with manufactured evidence used to arrest outspoken critics of Gulen and the AKP. Only after the dramatic falling out between the government and the Gulen movement in 2013 did Zaman become an opposition paper and the AKP decide that Fetullah Gulen was now the head of a newly discovered Fetullah Gulen Terror Organization.

As a result of this history, Zaman’s efforts to present itself as a victim of AKP authoritarianism after previous government assaults have often elicited accusations of hypocrisy. If many at the paper and in the Gulen movement now regret their complicity in earlier abuses of the legal system, they still have not said so as loudly as their critics would like. At the same time, the particular vehemence with which the government has targeted Gulen-affiliated media, as opposed to other longstanding opposition papers, reflects the legacy of their past relationship as well.

Zaman’s criticism, coming from Islamist perspective and speaking to an Islamist audience, represents a threat to the AKP that is different from that posed by more traditionally secular media outlets. Coming amidst several recent examples of intra-AKP tension, the Zaman seizure could presage a more concerted and uncompromising effort to target dissenters from within the party. The alacrity with which the government has accused previous allies of terrorism and treason is all too reminiscent of the way other political movements in the past century have begun to eat their own as they became ever more authoritarian.

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