The bad news as Turkey cracks down on dissenting media

Sevgi Akarcesme was accustomed to reporting the news of the day, not finding her newspaper itself as the main story.

But when a tip-off hinted at the midnight police raid on her offices that would follow 24 hours later, she and colleagues at Today's Zaman rushed to prepare a special front page, declaring a "shameful day for free press in Turkey".

That was Friday, March 4. In the week since, Akarcesme has nearly lost her voice, fielding calls from reporters across the world about the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's savage takeover of the country's biggest newspaper, Zaman, and its English-language counterpart where she is editor-in-chief.

"Brazil, Netherlands, yesterday I was on CNN International, there are people calling from Indonesia," she told Fairfax Media from Istanbul.

But the audience that matters most to Akarcesme has been left in the dark.

"Unfortunately, half of Turkey doesn't know," she said, blaming authorities for extending the tentacles of control across most local media.

"There is a lack of interest in Turkey, and an outpouring of interest from around the world."

Turkey's liberal reputation – never fully realised – is now straining credulity. Having long aimed to join the European Union, it was only a few years ago the country was feted as a democratic example for the Muslim world, especially for near neighbours struggling after the so-called Arab Spring.

No more. Erdogan's rule in Turkey is now increasingly likened to that of a dictator, and Turkish journalists, who have rarely found independent reporting easy, are regularly a target.

Last month, petrol bombs smashed into the offices of two other newspapers, while in October, authorities shut down two television stations critical of the government.

The Turkish news agency Cihan was also seized soon after the crackdown on Zaman, all the while pro-government stooges in the remaining media cheered, as one put it, "the end of those who do not rely on the nation".

"Most of the people buy this argument, they equate criticism of Erdogan with criticising Turkey," Akarcesme said.

Turkey is under extraordinary strain. The flood of refugees from neighbouring Syria has created a severe burden, and the menace of Islamic State looms.

But the government has used the cover of crisis to crack down on Kurds and other perceived enemies.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last week defended the takeover of Zaman as "legal, not political" after police executed a prosecutor's warrant, and said the government could not interfere in the judicial process.

But most observers blame the takeover on links between Zaman and US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a one-time Erdogan ally who the president now accuses of plotting a coup.

Zaman once championed Erdogan until a series of 2013 stories alleging official corruption, while the government accuses Gulen's Hizmet movement of fomenting terrorism.

A protest by about 500 people was reported outside Zaman's offices following the takeover. After police used tear gas against the crowd, the reporters asked the protesters to stay away, fearing for their safety.

Police now roamed the corridors of the newspaper building, the staff cafeteria and the gardens outside.

Whatever the domestic politics at play, the crackdown on media freedom and opposition voices was enough to draw international rebuke.

Australia, a fellow G20 nation to Turkey, cautiously warned that the newspaper takeover was a "matter of concern", and more pointedly urged Turkey to respect the freedoms enshrined its constitution.

France was more strident, calling the seizure "unacceptable".

But Christophe Deloire from the journalist advocacy group Reporters Without Borders warned Europe was guilty of "culpable weakness" in not standing up to Erdogan's media crackdown, fearful of the need to deal with Turkey over teeming flows of refugees from Syria.

The crackdown on rights barely troubled the EU attempt last week to strike a deal with Turkey for the return of would-be asylum seekers.

Zaman was back on newsstands two days after official trustees took over, the previously fierce editorial line critical of the government suddenly replaced by fawning stories about Erdogan hosting a reception for International Women's Day and inspecting a building site.

When Fairfax Media spoke to Akarcesme, she was still technically in charge of the English-language Today's Zaman, but her counterpart on the widely read Turkish masthead had been removed.

"I don't care whether they fire me or not," Akarcesme said. "I refuse to work under a publication that is censored by the government.

"But I don't want to give them the pleasure of resigning."

Follow FairfaxForeign on Twitter

Follow FairfaxForeign on Facebook

The story The bad news as Turkey cracks down on dissenting media first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide