The Turkish government continued its systematic crackdown on independent media today, taking over Zaman, the country’s top-circulation opposition newspaper, and four other outlets owned by the same company. Simultaneously, CNN Türk announced the cancellation of programs by two of its veteran anchors, one of whom recently hosted a former deputy prime minister critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
These events are only the latest in Erdoğan’s ongoing campaign to silence media critical of his strategy to consolidate power under a presidential system. Before the June 2015 elections, Erdoğan filed a complaint against the editor of the prominent secular daily Cumhuriyet over credible reports that Turkish intelligence had facilitated arms transfers to Syrian rebels. The editor and his colleague ultimately served 92 days in prison. Upon their release by decision of the Constitutional Court, Erdoğan declared that he did not recognize the court’s ruling, and that they should be sent back to prison for life.
The AKP’s failure to secure a single-party majority in the June 2015 elections – for the first time in twelve and a half years – has likely contributed to the intensification of attacks on the media. Shortly before the subsequent snap elections in November of last year, the government took over two dailies and two TV channels, and turned these outlets into government mouthpieces.
The target of today’s takeover, Zaman, is owned by the Gülen movement, led by a reclusive Muslim cleric now living in exile in rural Pennsylvania and which was allied to the AKP until Gülen began to launch blistering attacks against Erdoğan’s Islamist and autocratic governance in 2013. As has happened in the past, the government will likely appoint trustees to run the daily, dismiss its most critical voices, and potentially shut it down altogether.
The timing of the takeover, right before a European Union-Turkey summit in Brussels next week, is not coincidental. Erdoğan’s assault on the media is, after all, a bold challenge to his European counterparts. He expects them to turn a blind eye to his violations of press freedom in exchange for his cooperation in curbing Syrian refugee flows to the Continent.
The Europeans are almost certain to agree to this arrangement. Their national security interests mean much more to them than Turkish press freedom. But they will not forget these incidents when it comes time for renewed talks on Turkish accession. Indeed, such crackdowns have no place in the European Union.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.