The Levant — ISTANBUL: Two Turkish newspapers critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed to appear on Thursday, a day after riot police stormed their sister television stations and forced them off air.
The action has provoked alarm among Turkey’s Western allies and global rights groups over the state of media freedom just days before the country’s most crucial election in years.
Riot police firing tear gas and water cannon stormed the Istanbul offices of two television stations linked to a bitter Erdogan rival and pulled the plug Wednesday, triggering brawls with staff and demonstrations in Istanbul.
The spectacular raids targeted the media operations of the multi-billion dollar Kozi-Ipek conglomerate, which is accused of financing US-exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, a one-time Erdogan ally turned arch-foe.
The group’s two stations, Bugun TV and KanalTurk, remain off air while its two newspapers, Bugun and Millet, were prevented from appearing Thursday after court-appointed administrators moved in.
Millet published the front page of what would have been its Thursday edition on Twitter with a photograph of a bloodied press card and the headline “A bloody putsch”.
Bugun editor-in-chief Erhan Basyurt, who was sacked along with two reporters, said they were initially informed there were technical problems preventing the paper from being printed.
“Then they told us we could not print, that there was a written ban.”
Critics accuse the government of trying to quash dissent ahead of Sunday’s vote, which opinion polls say is unlikely to deliver Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) the clear victory it so desperately desires.
“The government has shown today what will happen to this country if we do not put a halt to this oppression on Sunday,” Eren Erdem, a lawmaker with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said on Twitter.
Turkey is holding its second election in five months after the AKP, which has dominated for 13 years, lost its majority in a stunning election setback in June.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu failed over the subsequent weeks to form a coalition, forcing a new election, but opinion polls are predicting little change from the June outcome.
Police were acting Wednesday on a controversial court order to send in administrators to run the Kozi-Ipek companies as part of a wider “terrorism” probe into Gulen and his followers.
Erdogan has accused Gulen of trying to topple him by persuading allies in the police and judiciary to launch a vast probe into government corruption in December 2013.
In a television interview on Wednesday, Erdogan said he was confident “justice would do what is necessary” and questioned why Kozi-Ipek’s CEO Akin Ipek had left the country.
The state of democracy in Turkey and its treatment of journalists have long been a concern of rights groups and Western governments, and is a factor in its faltering talks to join the European Union.
“For the last couple of days, Turkey has seen the worst of what a democratic parliamentary system turns into when those in power bend laws as they please in the absence of any kind of checks and balances,” said Ozgur Korkmaz in the Hurriyet Daily News.
Brussels described Wednesday’s developments as “worrying”, with a spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini saying the bloc expected the election “to be in line with international and democratic standards.”
The US voiced similar concerns.
Rights groups say about 20 journalists are detained on a variety of charges, and there has been a string of prosecutions against journalists, artists and even schoolboys for “insulting” the head of state.
Amnesty International described the raids as “yet another shocking attack on journalists and freedom of expression” in Turkey.
“By replacing news broadcasts with camel films days before a parliamentary election, Turkey’s leaders have shown they no longer are interested in even pretending to respect the country’s democracy,” added Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch accused the government of taking exceptional measures to silence critical media and crack down on perceived opponents.
“Not since the days of the 1980 military coup have there been such dramatic moves to close down and prevent scrutiny of power.”
The AKP is predicted to win 40-43 percent of the vote, not enough to secure a majority in the 550-member parliament, forcing it into a reluctant coalition or calling for yet another poll.
“The elections are coming… but it could be even more difficult to hear our voices in the next two or three days,” said Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) whose election success in June stripped the AKP of its majority.
Source: Agence France Presse