ISTANBUL - Turkish police launched a series of raids Tuesday on businesses owned by a major media company in what now appears to be the start of a fresh crackdown on newspapers and broadcasters critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP, say rights groups.
The raids on the Koza Ipek group - a mining-to-media conglomerate - came just days after a whistleblower with a credible track record warned on Twitter that President Erdogan was planning a crackdown on the press ahead of a snap election slated for November. The whistleblower’s disclosure came as new regulations went into force giving the government greater control over the issuing of press cards and media accreditation.
According to the state-run Anadolu Agency, 23 media businesses owned by the Koza Ipek group were searched on suspicion of providing financial support to the well-known Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is now in exile in the United States. Gulen was once an ally of the Turkish president but has become one of his fiercest critics.
Turkish police have so far declined to comment on the raids, but Erkan Akkus, news editor at two of the group’s TV stations, said the holding company's headquarters and the main studios of the television stations in Ankara, as well as the chairman's home, were being searched.
“The aim here is to silence the opposition media ahead of an election,” Akkus said in a statement. “It is wrong to see this as aimed just at our group. They are starting with us to test the waters and if it doesn't spark an outcry, it could then spread to other media groups.”
A rising number of journalists are currently facing legal proceedings in Turkey on a variety of accusations that include insulting top officials. Most of the cases date back to December, when dozens of journalists and media executives were detained. The prosecutions, which are continuing, have drawn condemnation from international rights groups. The European Parliament rebuked Ankara for the December sweep of journalists, some of whom were held on terrorism charges.
Independent newspapers and broadcasters have long been locked in a battle with the AKP government, which says the media is all too frequently irresponsible in its coverage.
In January, President Erdogan delivered a tongue-lashing to the secular opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet for publishing excerpts, from French magazine Charlie Hebdo, as a gesture of solidarity in the wake of the terror attack that left eight of the satirical magazine’s staff dead at the hands of gun-toting Islamic militants.
“Where do you think you live?” Erdogan asked in a speech. “You cannot insult somebody’s sacred values with this.” Then he went on to say, “They may be atheists, but if they are, they will respect what is sacred to me. If they do not, it means provocation, which is punishable by laws.”
As the searches were being conducted on Koza Ipek, Turkish authorities were already being criticized for the remanding in custody Monday of two British journalists and a Turkish translator working for U.S.-based media outlet VICE News. They are facing terror charges for filming developments in southeast Turkey, where violence between security forces and Kurdish separatists is flaring.
"As Turkey's friend and NATO ally, we urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold universal democratic values, including due process, freedom of expression as well as access to media and information,” said Mark Toner, a U.S. State Department spokesman. He also told reporters freedom of expression is a key element in every healthy democracy.
International rights groups Amnesty International has called for the release of the VICE News journalists, dubbing the charges against them bizarre. "This is yet another example of the Turkish authorities suppressing the reporting of stories that are embarrassing to them," said Andrew Gardner, an Amnesty International researcher.
At the end of last week, the Turkish whistleblower known as Fuat Avni, who tweets regularly and has revealed in the past numerous planned government security operations before they have unfolded, alleged a more expansive crackdown on media outlets was being planned ahead of the November parliamentary election. The identity of the whistleblower, who has more than a million followers, is not known, but Turkish media frequently use his tweets as tip-offs. He is suspected to be someone with access to senior circles in President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.
He also said President Erdogan was especially infuriated by recent television footage of relatives of security force members slain by Kurdish separatists expressing outrage against the government at funerals. Avni mentioned that ?pek Media Holding, which owns also the Bugün and Millet newspapers, would be targeted. Both newspapers were raided.
In a tweet after the police searches, Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dündar said, “Here are two newspapers from Turkey ahead of elections. Even if you silence all newspapers, you can’t hide the truth.”
Koza Ipek’s CEO Ak?n ?pek said in a written statement police had also raided his house in Ankara. He insisted neither he nor his companies has been involved in any illegal or inappropriate acts and that previous investigations had proven nothing against them. “I haven't even had a traffic ticket so far,” he said. Tuesday’s raids were conducted by officers for the Finance Ministry's financial crimes division.