The EU countries are dependent on Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan for solving the refugees crisis, but will be under hard strain to speak out against the erosion of media freedom in Turkey.
Pressure will be high at the EU-Turkey summit on Monday. Critics have accused the European Union of turning a blind eye to Turkey’s rights record because it needs Ankara’s help curbing huge flows of refugees and migrants.
Turkey, which borders Syria, Iraq and Iran, will join EU leaders in Brussels at a crisis summit on Monday. Davutoglu said the “positive agenda will now be occupied and stained” with the issue of press freedom.
Police used tear gas and water cannons for a second day running on Saturday to disperse hundreds of protesters who gathered outside the headquarters of Zaman newspaper — now surrounded by police fences. Law enforcement officers stormed the building on Friday to enforce the court-ordered seizure of the publication, which is linked to Erdogan’s top foe, U.S.-based opposition cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Rights groups and European officials condemned the takeover, seeing it as proof that Turkey’s government silences dissident views. Other media outlets affiliated with Gulen’s movement were taken over in October, and companies including a bank have been seized, wiping out billions of dollars in valuations.
The Istanbul court’s appointment of trustees to manage Zaman and its sister outlets further reduced the number of opposition media organizations in Turkey, which is dominated by pro-government news outlets. It raised alarm bells over the deterioration of rights conditions in the NATO member nation, which also aspires for EU membership, just days before a March 7 meeting, in which EU leaders will try to convince Turkey to do more to curtail the flow of migrants traveling to Europe.
The Saturday edition of the English-language Today’s Zaman, published before the forced takeover, printed its entire front page in black with the headline: “Shameful day for free press in Turkey.”
Zaman’s seizure was part of an intensified crackdown on Gulen’s movement, which the government claims is attempting to topple it. Authorities accuse the movement’s followers of infiltrating police and the judiciary and of orchestrating corruption allegations in 2013 that implicated Erdogan’s inner circle, as part of their alleged bid to bring down the government.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking to Turkish reporters during a visit to Iran, insisted that the appointment of trustee managers was a legal decision, not a political one and denied any government involvement in the move.
“We did not interfere … nor would be interfere” Davutoglu said, adding that he was concerned that the issue would infringe on the “positive agenda” of Monday’s Turkey-EU summit.
Rights groups accuse EU nations of keeping mute about deteriorating freedoms and human rights abuses in Turkey— including the large civilian death toll during military operations against Kurdish militants — because of the country’s crucial role in curtailing the flow of migrants to Europe.
“The European Union and the United States, as Turkey’s partners and allies, should not trade Turkey’s support on migration and Syria for silence over the dismantling of democratic institutions,” said Daniel Calingaert, executive vice president of the U.S.-based watchdog, Freedom House, following Zaman’s take-over.
The European Federation of Journalists said: “The European Union cannot remain silent to the political seizure of Zaman newspaper, Today’s Zaman daily and Cihan news agency.”
But the EU commissioner for enlargement, Johannes Hahn, said on Twitter that he was “extremely worried” by the development.
“Turkey, as a candidate country, needs to respect freedom of the media,” Hahn said.
European Parliament President Martin Schultz said he intends to raise the issue with Davutoglu in Brussels.
Today, on Sunday, the seized Turkish newspaper already adopted a pro-government line. The newspaper’s top story Sunday described how Erdogan attended a ceremony marking a key phase in the construction of a bridge in Istanbul. (with AP, Reuters)