Concerns rise as Ankara cracks down on opposition media ahead of November polls

By bne IntelliNews September 2, 2015

Kivanc Dundar in Istanbul -


The British government on September 2 expressed concern at the arrest of two British journalists on terror charges, who have been caught up in a series of raids by Turkish police over the last few days against media outlets and individuals deemed critical of Turkey’s government.

The raids are prompting concerns that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is attempting to silence the opposition ahead of the crucial snap November 1 election, in which he is desperate to see his Justice and Development Party (AKP) regain the parliamentary majority it enjoyed for 12 years until losing it at the last polls in June. The upcoming election is key to Erdogan’s plans to establish an all-powerful executive presidential system.

On September 1, Turkish police launched a series of raids on 23 companies belonging to the Koza-Ipek Group, which is linked to the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s former ally-turned foe. The police searched the offices of Koza Group – which is active in the media (TV channels Kanalturk, Bugun and Bugun and Millet newspapers), energy and mining sectors – on suspicion of providing financial support to the so-called “Fethullahist Terrorist Group”. Six people have been detained. Koza Ipek’s chairman Akin Ipek has denied any wrongdoing.

“These raids appear to be an attempt to pressure Koza Ipek to induce self-censorship in its media holdings. Coupled with the recent bringing of terrorism charges against two British journalists, they seem to be the latest steps in a broad campaign to intimidate and silence critical journalism,” the International Press Institute (IPI) said in a statement on September 1.

“At a moment when the country is rushing to the elections, it’s a great concern Turkish public opinion cannot get independent and impartial news from the media. It seems the situation is getting worse in comparison with the June 7 polls,” says political commentator Serkan Demirtas of Hurriyet Daily News.

Commentators see the crackdown on Koza and intense pressure on media as a whole as part of Erdogan’s election campaign. The title of Hurriyet Daily News columnist Yusuf Kanli’s piece in the newspaper is telling: “Election campaign kicks off with Koza raid”. “With elections approaching and the president vowing at every occasion that a repeat of June 7 will not be allowed on November 1, anxiety is increasing among remaining media still courageous enough to remain critical,” wrote Kanli on September 2 in his aforementioned column.

Second bite at the cherry

This is not the first time the authorities have targeted Gulen-affiliated groups. In December 2014, the police detained Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of the Gulen-linked Zaman newspaper. And in February, Turkey’s banking regulators took control of the Gulen-affiliated Islamic lender Bank Asya, citing violations of banking regulations on transparency in organizational and partnership structure. The Saving Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) appointed a new board of directors and general manager.

Erdogan blames Gulen and his movement for orchestrating the high-profile corruption probes that were launched by prosecutors in 2013 against his government, and he accuses the Islamic cleric and his followers inside the police force, media and judiciary of forming a "parallel state” to overthrow him.

The raids on Koza companies came just days after the well-known whistleblower who tweets under the alias Fuat Avni claimed that Erdogan was planning a crackdown on the opposition media ahead of the elections. One of the targets would be the Dogan Group, said Fuat Avni, who has a credible track record predicting such events. In the past Fuat Avni accurately predicted a number of government operations against media outlets, the police force and Bank Asya.

In a sign of the president’s tight grip over Turkish institutions, state broadcaster TRT on September 1 sacked Deniz Ulke Aribogan, an academic who hosted a show on TRT, only three hours after she criticised the Koza raids on Twitter.

The daily Milliyet, owned by the Demiroren Group that acquired earlier this week Total’s service station network and commercial sales, supply and logistics assets in Turkey for €325mn, recently fired three high-profile columnists and five reporters apparently for their critical views of Erdogan and the AKP.

And on August 27, two British reporters from VICE News were arrested for terror offences in the country’s southeast. The journalists were filming the clashes between the police and Kurdish protesters. The journalists were first questioned about their links to Islamic State, but they were arrested for supporting the PKK. The abbreviations and English translations of organizations linked to the PKK written in a notebook have been mentioned among the evidence seized by the police, Hurriyet Daily News reported.

On September 2, the British government stepped up the pressure on the Turkish authorities over the arrests, with the Foreign Office saying it was “concerned” about the arrests. “Respect for freedom of expression and the right of media to operate without restriction are fundamental in any democratic society. Turkey is a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights and UN Declaration of Human Rights. We would expect the Turkish authorities to uphold the obligations enshrined in those agreements,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.

Sozcu, an anti-government newspaper with a daily circulation of around 340,000, appeared on newsstands on September 1 with blank columns signed by the paper’s columnists in protest at what it calls the unprecedented pressure being put on the media. It faced 57 court cases and 67 criminal complaints over its news stories, and its columnists were sued for more than 60 articles over the past year, the newspaper said. 

Business at risk

Outside of the media, Sinpas REIT, one of Turkey’s largest developers, removed its general manager after she made comments critical of the government in an interview. The case of the Bank Asya takeover has intensified fears among the business community that similar operations could be carried out for other groups crucial of the government, which analysts say will only be negative for already fragile investor confidence in the country.  

The raids have hit the shares of Turkish media groups. Shares in the BIST-100 listed Koza Ipek companies, namely Koza Altin, Koza Madencilik and Ipek Dogal Enerj, dropped between 15% and 20% on September 1. But they recovered around 1% in morning trade on September 2. The decline in shares in Dogan Group companies was the collateral damage of the Koza affair: Dogan Holding and Dogan Gazetecilik shares fell 5.8% and 5.4%, while shares in Hurriyet declined 5.1% on September 1. Dogan Gazetecilik shares were down 1.7%, but Dogan Holding and Hurriyet Gazetecilik rose around 2% on September 2.

The political uncertainty and flare-up in violence is also having repercussions for the economy and wider business community. The lira weakened against the dollar amid the Koza raid, though the currency trimmed its losses later in the day.

Such uncertainty could linger into 2016, warned Morgan Stanley in a report published on August 31. Turkey is in uncharted waters amid a combination of political uncertainty, deteriorating economic indicators, volatile local financial markets and the global rise in interest rates, warned Morgan Stanley, which lowered its 2015 GDP expectation to 2.2% from 3.0% previously.

A cut by Moody’s Investors Service in Turkey’s rating could also be on the horizon if no viable government is established by the rating agency’s review on December 4, said the investment bank. Moody’s warned in August that Erdogan’s decision to call new elections is credit negative for Turkey and would deepen policy inaction. If the November election does not deliver an effective government, it would most likely influence Turkey's capacity to attract and sustain investor confidence, the rating agency said.

The AKP not leading a government is something Erdogan is desperate to avoid. The June parliamentary election was a tragedy both for the president personally and his AKP. His plans for all-powerful presidential system suffered as a result. But the president believes, say analysts, that he can prevent a repeat in November by undermining the Kurdish party HDP and winning support from Turkish nationalists.

Erdogan thinks he lost a battle in June but not yet the war, and he is willing to do what it takes to ensure an AKP victory. “To get what it wants, two things are imperative for the AKP. First, it has to push the HDP under the 10% threshold, which would allow it to grab most of the seats the HDP won with 13% of the vote. Second, the AKP has to win back nationalist Turks who gravitated to the Nationalist Action Party, angry with the ‘peace process’ with the PKK,” Kadri Gursel wrote in a column for Al Monitor. “In this context, the large-scale air raids launched against PKK targets July 24 ended unequivocally the state of non-hostility with the PKK since 2012 in what was a deliberate political choice, intended to serve both electoral objectives mentioned above.”

The question is what Erdogan would do if the November elections produce yet another hung parliament. Will he call yet more new elections after November?

Since the Gezi Park protests of the summer of 2013 and the corruption charges laid against the AKP later that year, Erdogan has become an anxious man trying to ensure his future at all costs, according to Cengiz Aktar, a senior scholar at Istanbul Policy Centre. “Ill-advised by a cohort of sycophants, he is increasingly insulated from reality. He has become a sort of 'untouchable' and 'unaccountable' man, making decisions that put both the country and the region at risk,” wrote Aktar in a column for the Al Jazeera website.


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