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Turkish Government Seizes Opposition Newspaper: What Next?

On March 4, the Istanbul Sixth Criminal Court of Peace ruled that a trustee panel would be appointed to take over the operations of the Feza Media Group, which includes one of Turkey’s highest circulation daily newspapers, Zaman, its English-language counterpart, Today’s Zaman, Cihan News Agency, as well as a news magazine and TV channel.

This marks the third time in four months the Turkish government has seized a media company under dubious claims of terrorist connections.

For the past several years, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been waging a campaign of arrests and intimidation against Turkish media. The seizure of one of Turkey’s largest independent newspapers is a dangerous escalation in government efforts to silence any dissent against its increasingly draconian policies.

Under what grounds can the Turkish government seize control of an independent media outlet?

Though the Turkish constitution contains protections against interference in the media, the Turkish government has used a provision contained in the Turkish Code on Criminal Procedure which allows the government to take over the operations of businesses “if there is evidence that a crime has been committed within the framework of activities of a company and it is a necessity to reveal the material truth during the stage of investigation and trial.”

This law was controversially used prior to the November 2015 parliamentary elections to allow the Turkish government to seize control of Koza İpek Holding, a Turkish conglomerate that owned two newspapers, two television channels, and one radio station. After the November election, the government once again invoked the law to take control of Kaynak Holding, which contains Turkey’s largest publishing house.

Why was Zaman seized?

The crimes Koza İpek, Kaynak, and now Zaman are accused of are the same: connections to the faith-based Gülen Movement, which the Turkish government has declared a terrorist organization. The Gülen Movement, led by U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, was once allied with Turkey’s AKP government, but became one of its most bitter enemies after the December 2013 corruption scandal, in which the Gülen movement implicated senior government officials—including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself—in large-scale corruption.

Zaman has tangled with the Turkish government before: its former editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanlı was detained in December 2014 on charges of membership in a terrorist organization as part of a large-scale government raid against media personnel affiliated with the Gülen Movement. He was subsequently released, and in October 2015, he stepped down from his position as head of Zaman due to “unlawful pressure” placed on him and Turkish media.

Why now?

Although it is unclear what provoked this action against Zaman at this particular moment, rumors have been circulating that the government would move against the group since at least last summer. One possible reason for the government decision now could be as a direct response to the Constitutional Court’s recent decision, made only one week ago, to release jailed journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül from Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper, who had been detained for over 90 days for their report on alleged shipments of weapons to Syria by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization. Dündar, upon his release, publicly taunted the Turkish president, saying, “You know, the 26th is President Erdoğan’s birthday. We are happy to celebrate his birthday with this release decision.”

President Erdoğan railed against the court decision, saying, “The media cannot have unlimited freedom. These reports are an attack on the current president of this country.” To save face after the Constitutional Court went against Erdoğan, pro-government media outlets soon began to report that Dündar and Gül would soon be re-arrested, and that Zaman would be seized.

What happens next?

Based on the seizures of Koza İpek and Kayank, we can expect several events to come to pass:

  • First, the trustees appointed to Zaman, despite legal requirements that they be impartial, will be staunchly pro-government. Trustees appointed by the court to take over operations of Koza İpek’s holdings were all affiliated with the AKP, whether members of the party, representatives in local government, or previously held positions at pro-government media groups.
  • Second, the appointed pro-government trustees will fire scores of employees, leaving potentially hundreds of journalists unemployed. Trustees appointed to Koza İpek fired almost 200 employees, while trustees at Kaynak Holding also fired employees at will to make way for pro-government hires.
  • Third, the editorial line of Zaman will shift to firmly pro-government, and its readership will plummet accordingly. Circulation of the Koza İpek-owned Bügun daily was reportedly 104,000 copies per day before the government seizure, and plummeted to 5,600 afterwards. Circulation of Koza İpek’s other daily Millet dropped similarly: from 47,500 to 15,000.
  • Fourth, the appointed trustees will receive high salaries, draining the media group of resources. One trustee appointed to Koza İpek, an AKP representative on a Turkish district council, reportedly received a salary of 50,000 Turkish Liras (over $17,000) per month. Another, the brother of a prominent figure in Turkey’s judiciary, reportedly received a similarly high salary of 30,000 Turkish Liras (over $10,000) per month. The number of trustees is also a drain on company resources: Kaynak Holding’s Ufuk Publishing House was previously run by only one person—but the court appointed seven trustees to take over its operations. Koza İpek initially had 30 trustees, which was later reduced to nine.
  • And fifth, deliberate mismanagement resulting from the government seizure may lead to the closure of a formerly highly-read and highly-regarded source of independent news in Turkey. Less than five months after trustees took over Koza İpek, it was announced that its media group would permanently close, a fate which may have been the government’s aim all along, and which it may attempt to replicate with Zaman.

What can the United States do?

As Turkey’s media crackdown has proceeded, Congress has several times expressed its concern. In March 2015, a bipartisan group of 74 Senators urged Secretary of State John Kerry to speak out against press freedom violations in Turkey, which they called “an affront to the basic principles of democracy.” Earlier, in February 2015, 90 members of the House of Representatives published a similar letter. Congressional leaders have shown a commitment to upholding media freedom in Turkey, recognizing the negative effects censoring the press has on Turkey’s democracy. Since then, as the Zaman seizure has made clear, conditions have only worsened in Turkey, making it more important than ever that U.S. policymakers—from Congress to the executive branch—present a united front in their condemnation of Turkey’s repressive tactics and the adverse effects they may have on the U.S.-Turkey relationship.

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