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Turkey continues press crackdown with raid on well-known opposition paper

Turkey's president Recep Erdogan
Turkey's president Recep Erdogan REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Police have raided the offices of a leading opposition paper in Turkey, belonging to the Zaman Group. The paper is close to President Recep Erdogan's arch foe, the reclusive cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in the US. 

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The raid is the latest in a series of investigations into Turkish media outlets and comes just days before the gathering of the G20 summit in Antalya.

“My colleagues were trying to finalize Zaman’s issue and dozens of police and water cannon gathered outside the newspaper headquarters,” says Emre Demir, editor of Zaman France. “There were choppers hovering above the newspaper.”

According to Demir, the Zaman group was accused of facilitating the printing of the Free Bugün Daily, a newspaper closely connected to the Gulen group.

“The Free Bugün Daily is printed by another printing company and you don’t need to send choppers to find this out,” says Demir.

Erdogan's ruling AKP party has been locked in a long struggle against the Gulen movement.

Click here for our coverage of Turkey election 2015

The AKP accuses Gulen and his group of being involved in a sinister “parallel state” that is aims to overthrow the current government.

The party also accuses Gulen of orchestrating a widespread anti-corruption campaign that looks into behaviour of high-level officials.

Gulen, who lives in the US state of Pennsylvania, denies this, saying that he does not know the prosecuters involved in the investigation.

Zaman itself does have connections with the Gulen movement.

Zaman newspaper is founded by journalists who were close to the Gulen Movement,” admits Demir. “But after 25 years, Zaman newspaper has become one of the leading newspapers in Turkey.”

Demir says the paper employs editorialists who support the secular views of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the ex-vice president of the Kemalist Party, CHP, leftist voices, Islamist voices and nationalist voices.

“So the newspaper, Zaman, has become much larger than a Gulen movement newspaper, so it is not entirely correct,” he says.

Not everyone agrees.

“The Zaman newspaper themselves had not been kind toward the free press either,” says Bedry Baikam of the oppositioin CHP party. “Whenever tFetullah Gulen attacked Kemalist and democratic writers and journalists, Zaman was not on their side. On the contrary.

“So now that the Fetullah Gulen sect and the AKP have gone in different directions, they have a big split. Now the AKP government is doing raids on Zaman or other newspapers, controlled or closed to the Fetullah Gulen sect.

Freedom of speech is not something they can "sometimes want when it’s for themselves, and sometimes not want when it’s for other people”, he comments.

Media watchdogs like Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists say that at least 56 journalists are under investigation and major opposition newspapers and TV stations have been attacked.

“The government is trying to crack down on all the groups, including the media, newspapers and magazines and TV stations, who are close to Fethullah Gullen,” says Volkan Aytar, a professor of Communications Studies with Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul.

“Basically the government wants to erase them.”

According to Aytar, there is now an atmosphere of fear and repression in Turkey "because people who are critical of the government find less and less ways to express themselves. So, yes indeed, there seems to be a concerning turn towards an authoritarian tone in the government.”

Some commentators say the government is cracking down more heavily on its opponents after its landslide victory in 1 November's general election.

“As soon as they formed the government they are even going to increase pressure,” says Baykam.

“The will do so because they don’t want to fear anything in the future. Suddenly they came out of a nightmare. That nightmare was the elections of the 7 June [when the AKP failed to win an absolute majority in parliament]. And now they will do anything to never go into that position again. They will increase the pressure, because now they know what the nightmare is like.”

Opposition journalists say they are not deterred, even if they are fighting against the odds.

“My collegues in Zaman fear for their lives,” says Emre Demir of Zaman France. “There are serious threats against them and legal cases,” mentioning collegues who may face between 20 or even 50 years in prison.

“We are seeing the end of freedom in Turkey, these are the last of critical journalists in Turkey,” he says. “But, make no mistake, we will continue to fight against this pressure, we’ll try to find other ways to express our voices."

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