It is no secret that Turkey has seen a worrying decline in Press freedom in the last several years. The seizure of Zaman (one of the more critical media outlets against the government) on the March 5th by police and court-appointed trustees has led to one of the darkest days of press freedom in Turkey.
Zaman’s editorial policy on its Turkish daily was changed overnight and its English language daily has been shutdown. Moreover, its entire editorial history and back issues were deleted. Protests emerged leading to a heavy police response, with police gassing protestors outside the media outlet as they seized control of Zaman. The seizure of Zaman will have far-reaching consequences not just concerning freedom of speech but also on the political discourse and economic viability of Turkey in the global economy.
Since the 2013 Gezi protests, there has been a systematic effort by the current AKP government to silence dissenting voices in the media. Journalists have been continuingly prosecuted, fired and imprisoned as a means to stifle critical voices. This has also led to the government seizing newspaper outlets overnight and appointing trustees to oversee the changing of editorial policy –usually to a more a pro-government stance.
Zaman latest victim of AKP
The seizure of Zaman newspaper and its other affiliated media companies came as no surprise to commentators and analysts within Turkey. This is not the first time a critical media outlet has been seized by court appoint trustees. In the continuing political and legal battle against their one-time allies, the Gulen movement, the AKP government has used all its available means to try and stifle what its sees as a ‘parallel structure’.
The greatest threat according to the government is the Fetullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO) which is aims to undermine and possibly overthrow the current administration. The AKP’s fight against FETO has seen it acquire a majority of assets belonging to the Gulen movement including universities, and has used this rationale to justify its decision to seize critical media outlets.
In October 2015, the courts appointed trustees to Ipek Media group on the grounds of its affiliations with this terrorist organization and its daily newspapers’ editorial lines were turned pro-government overnight. Ipek Media Group has recently declared bankruptcy and will be shut down as its readership dramatically dropped in the months after the seizure.
Government tightens news monopoly
The Zaman case presents a very troubling set of events for the state of free speech in Turkey. However, while it is no surprise that the Zaman takeover was bound to happen, the problem lies in that now around 90% of the media in Turkey is pro-government. The seizure of Zaman has put increasing pressure on other critical news outlets to apply self-censoring practices.
As such the political discourse has become stifled, as the dominant pro-government newspapers are quick to promote the government’s viewpoint and rarely criticize policy. This has led to outrageous and even conspiratorial headlines about recent events occurring in Turkey and the region. It also coincides with the vilifications of academics (and subsequent arrests) that have been critical of the government’s policies in the country’s southeast.
There is even the deification of certain individuals within the political structure promoted by pro-government papers. Without political and public discourse actively being discussed by critical news outlets, disinformation and conspiracy theories will continue to erode trust in Turkish civil society. This polarization of Turkish society will take decades to fix.
The Zaman case, however, has had some impact on the international level. The US State Department official John Kirby described this as “the latest in a series of troubling judicial and law enforcement actions taken by the Turkish government targeting media outlets and others critical of it.”
The EU’s push to settle the refugee issue quickly and engage in a Faustian deal with the AKP after the Zaman seizure has caused much anger within Europe. President Francois Hollande has argued that Turkey’s accession process should be stalled until it meets the Copenhagen criteria and that no quick fix deal should be made that will compromise European values on press freedom and human rights.
The AKP government’s court appointed seizure of Zaman has also drawn the ire of the European Parliament, major international newspapers, the International Federation of Journalists, Amnesty International and other prominent NGOs who see such a move as a push towards authoritarianism.
The economic fallout of the Zaman seizure
While the political effects of the Zaman seizure will continue as pressure grows on the current government, the more pressing issue is the economic consequences of such a politically motivated move. The Zaman seizure has demonstrated that the judiciary in Turkey is politically motivated and does not respect private companies. This is unsettling for future investors in the Turkish economy.
It means that if a foreign company falls out of favor with the current government, there are the political and legal grounds for the acquisition of that company. Such moves will only hurt foreign investment, especially since an independent judiciary is vital to the flow of capital. At such a crucial moment in a flagging economy, Turkey has become an unreliable place for investment due to increased terrorism and the increasing instability in both the domestic and regional political spheres.
The Zaman takeover may not be the last seizure of critical media outlets in Turkey. However, the current government’s continuing practice not only undermines the political stability of Turkey but risks jeopardizing its economy as well. Zaman’s readership has fallen dramatically since the takeover, and its pro-government stance is not winning any new readers. Turkey will find itself politically, economically and most importantly socially in a tough position if such tightening continues. This comes at a time as Turkey tries to reassert itself back into the arms of Europe and become less regionally and internationally isolated; both economically and politically.
Iain MacGillivray is a GRI Commissioning Editor and an Independent Political Risk Analyst who focuses on Australian, European, and Middle Eastern Politics. He has worked as a Senior Academic Tutor in Middle Eastern Politics at the University of Melbourne and has been a freelance journalist for many years. Iain currently holds a Masters of International Relations from the Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne and is currently undertaking a Masters of Middle East Studies at Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) in Ankara, Turkey.