By Independent Turkey
One of Turkey’s last remaining independent media outlets has been targeted by the police as the crackdown on press freedom continues.
Arrest warrants were issued on Friday by the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office for 3 executives and a reporter of the Sözcü newspaper. The owner, Burak Akbay; finance manager, Yonca Kaleli; digital editor, Mediha Olgun; and Izmir reporter, Gökmen Ulu; are all accused of ‘aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation’ and ‘initiating armed insurgency against the Turkish government.’
Ulu and Olgun were detained after police raided their homes, while Akbay is thought to be abroad. The status of Kaleli remains unclear.
The arrests come after what the police claim is a ten month investigation into the newspapers links to the co-called Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), the group widely considered to have orchestrated the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
Formed in 2007, Sözcü is one of the country’s widest circulating dailies, and with its staunchly secular and nationalist line, has often been used by government supporters as an example of press freedom in the country.
Although critical of the ruling Justice and Development Party, the newspaper has consistantly taken a strong position against FETÖ and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – the two groups that, alongside ISIS, the government has declared as the biggest threat to the country’s security.
Sözcü’s editor-in-chief, Metin Yilmaz, said that the move had come as a “surprise.” Speaking at a press conference held after the arrests, he told reporters that: “We were hearing that there can be an operation but we never believed it.”
The leader of the Republicans People’s Party (CHP) condemned the targeting of the newspaper. Speaking after visiting the Sözcü offices, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said: “The operation against Sözcü cannot be accepted. This operation has been staged against the whole of Turkey”.
Similar criticisms have been echoed by figures in the international community, where there is growing concern over the government’s curtailment of fundamental rights and freedoms.
At the International Press Institute’s annual congress in Hamburg, Steven Ellis, the organisation’s spokesman issued a statement criticising the operation as “the latest example of criminalizing journalism in Turkey,” before offering support for “all of our colleagues jailed or threatened with imprisonment for their work.”
Although arguably the most high profile, Sözcü is just the latest example of the government’s crackdown on opposition media, which has now left almost no critical outlet untouched.
Despite the country historically having a poor record of press freedom, the situation has plunged to unprecedented depths since the failed coup, with more than 130 media outlets closed and 165 journalists incarcerated – the highest number anywhere in the world.
After initially targeting smaller organisations – often those associated with the Kurdish opposition – police operations have increasingly been aimed at critical voices across the political spectrum.
On May 12, the digital editor of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, Oğuz Güven, was taken into custody after government supporters objected to the headline of an article posted on Twitter.
Güven’s arrest comes after a series of operations against one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers, with 12 senior Cumhuriyet staff currently awaiting trial for similar charges of ‘aiding terrorist organizations’.
Cumhuriyet’s former editor-in-chief, Can Dundar, was previously prosecuted, and briefly jailed alongside veteran journalist Erdem Gül, for a story allegedly implicating the security services in arming rebel groups in Syria. After also surviving an assassination attempt, Dundar is now living in exile in Germany,
In protest at the the detention of their colleagues, Sözcü published a “May 19 Press Freedom Special Edition” which, apart from the headline on the frontpage, left the whole newspaper blank. While on Friday, people gathered in Kadikoy district of Istanbul to declare their solidarity with the newspaper.