Exploiting Divisions, Turkish Gov’t Raids Opposition Paper

Photo: AFP

Only two days after the government shut down 15 media outlets, Turkish authorities intensified their crackdown on whatever left of critical media, targeting opposition Cumhuriyet daily by detaining its editor-in-chief and several columnists.

The Turkish police raided Cumhuriyet’s headquarters as well as houses of journalists and senior officials wanted for arrest early in the morning. The raids and detentions sparked outrage among critics, prompting large gathering outside the newspaper headquarters in Istanbul in solidarity with the detained employees. Turkey’s never-ending assault on the media to intimidate and silence any critical voice has reached new levels unseen in past four decades.

While most of the country focused on news reports covering court action against the daily, there is another part of the story that has gone largely unnoticed. Before thrust into a long-simmering civil war among Kemalists and seculars themselves, here is what happened today:

The Cumhuriyet daily said on its website that 11 journalists, including its top editor, have been detained by authorities.

Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu, respected columnists Aydin Engin, Kadri Gursel, Hizmet Cetinkaya and cartoonist Musa Kart were among those who were detained by the police on Monday. The government’s move elicited both national and international outburst of criticism.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said on Twitter that Turkey crossed yet another red line against freedom of expression.

He said Cumhuriyet “isn’t just any other independent newspaper: it’s the oldest secular newspaper in the country, an institution of the Republic.” Schulz argued that ongoing massive purge in Turkey seems to be “motivated by political considerations rather than legal and security rationale.”

When faced a barrage of strong reaction from the international community, the government tried to deflect criticism by saying that the action was taken against a foundation that owns Cumhuriyet, not the newspaper itself. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said there was a legal process launched on Aug. 18, and the court issued arrest warrants on Oct. 30. His account of the process was disputed by the newspaper on its website.

Istanbul’s Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office based its investigation into the daily over its alleged ties to FETO (Fethullahist Terror Organization), a term that government uses to describe the Gulen movement, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara deems a terrorist group. Cumhuriyet was also charged for justifying the failed coup attempt in July by publishing anti-government stories. Cumhuriyet dismissed such allegations as “ridiculous.”

Another accusation by prosecutors was the alleged irregularities in 2013 elections to the foundation board that pitted old titans of the daily against the new, visionary editorial team. The young foundation members strove to expand the reach of the newspaper which was mostly confined to a narrow base of audience; urban-based, secular and largely supporters of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Cartoonist Musa Kart told reporters outside the newspaper office that such measures of pressure to intimidate journalists would not succeed. When asked about the charges as he was escorted to a police vehicle, columnist Aydin Engin told journalists that he was detained because he was working for Cumhuriyet.

Cumhuriyet’s former editor-in-chief, Can Dundar, who lives in Germany in a self-imposed exile, is also among journalists wanted for arrest. He left Turkey in the summer after receiving many death threats. He also survived an assassination attempt outside the Istanbul courthouse, where he was sentenced to five years in prison for publishing a news story about illegal arms shipment to Syria.

As he watched his colleagues being put behind bars, he said Cumhuriyet was the last bastion of the critical media.

Main opposition CHP deputies showed up outside the daily in Istanbul to display support against the crackdown. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said his party would be on the front line in the struggle against pressure on media.

Cumhuriyet, one of the oldest newspapers in the country, is known with its affiliation with secular republican elites and Kemalists. Under editorial management of Dundar, the newspaper over the past years moved to the center to include liberal and more leftist voices, to the dismay and fury of hardcore Kemalists.

Former Ankara bureau chief Mustafa Balbay and columnist Mine Kirikkanat did not hide their disdain for the new editorial line of the daily, which appeared as the new face of the critical media with liberals and leftist intellectuals seeing Cumhuriyet as a valuable platform to vent their criticism and frustration with the government.

“I hope Can Dundar and his liberal team will be wiped off from Cumhuriyet newspaper as a result of this [investigation]”, one Cumhuriyet reader said on Twitter, reflecting a growing disillusionment with the newspaper’s new rulers.

The government operation was long in the making and the newspaper highlighted that earlier this month in one of its editorial pieces, warning against former leading figures of the newspaper, in a veiled reference to Balbay and Alev Coskun, another former staff member, for their covert action to provoke a government move.

Balbay and Coskun, both former members of Republic Foundation Board, lost their bid for re-election to the board of the foundation on a new election on April 2, 2013. They were the only two names who challenged the results and formation of a new board and brought the election to Directorate General of Foundations, which oversees and arbitrate dispute among foundations or in foundations.

The institution ruled against Balbay and Coskun’s application in which they claimed that the elections were rigged and fraught with irregularities. Its verdict confirmed the results of the elections that took place according to the foundation bylaws.

Then two former members and columnists brought the issue to the court to prolong their fight against the new board. When the court asked the opinion of Directorate General of Foundations, it wrote that the elections took place on a very legitimate ground and that there was nothing to be suspicious of. But it was not meant the end of hard-fought struggle of Balbay and Coskun who again tried hard by renewing their appeal.

On Monday, Office of Istanbul’s Prosecutor cited those elections and claimed, in line with Balbay’s argument, that it contained irregularities. The majority of the detained journalists were also members of the foundation board that regulates the management of Cumhuriyet.

Two of the detained ones had no relationship with the board. In the aftermath of police operations, many journalists who knew the background of the struggle vented their anger with Balbay whom they accused of playing into hands of the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose loath of the daily was well known.

On Oct. 4, Cumhuriyet put the blame on both Balbay and Coskun who, according to the daily, saw the right for themselves to be elected forever for the board, of preparing the ground for a government action. Its fears and concerns were proved on Monday.

The divisions between Kemalists of different sorts and convictions, and secular ultra-nationalists were vividly on display recently after the latter’s alignment with President Erdogan and their endorsement of the crackdown on opposition, Kurds, and all critics.

The group represented by Dogu Perincek, the leader of Homeland Party (Vatan Party), outraged by Cumhuriyet’s recent position and slammed the daily for its critical coverage. Dundar’s presence at pro-Kurdish Ozgur Gundem, which is affiliated with the PKK, for solidarity when the police detained its editors was too much for ultra-nationalist seculars and some former editors of Cumhuriyet. That division has only resurfaced after July 15 coup, when Erdogan launched sweeping purges against public servants of different creed.