Turkey's Media Faces Imminent Crackdown

05/26/2015 04:55 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

Photo credit: Zaman, Selahattin Sevi.

The Turkish government is reportedly bracing to seize a number of media outlets ahead of key parliamentary elections slated for June 7, a move that will largely finalize the authorities' long-sought goal to completely silence the critical media and will eclipse the last remaining outspoken voice in the Turkish media.

Last week, a Turkish prosecutor demanded banning Samanyolu and Bugun TV channels, two leading critical media outlets, as part of a campaign to muzzle the dissenting views in the media. Speculations are also abound that the government seeks to take over Zaman and Today's Zaman dailies, the country's best-selling Turkish and English-language newspapers.

World's largest press advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, said on Friday that the closure of these critical media outlets would "deal a devastating blow to media freedom and diversity in Turkey." A New York Times editorial on Friday warned with this headline: "Dark Clouds Over Turkey."

Turkey is already known for its intolerance toward the critical media, but the crackdown on the free speech has escalated since twin corruption investigations implicated senior government officials, including son of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan's lawyers exploit anti-terrorism and anti-defamation laws to lock up dozens of critics while journalists covering sensitive issues face trumped-up charges. On Friday, for instance, Arzu Yildiz, an investigative reporter, was charged with terrorism for writing a news report that unveiled how a prosecutor covered up the corruption scandal.

Zaman daily and Samanyolu TV channel are two largest news outlets that could still cover topics that the government is uneasy with. From Erdogan's lavish lifestyle to corruption allegations, these media outlets have been operating without any self-censorship for over two years. Editor-in-chief of Zaman, Ekrem Dumanli, was detained for a week last year and set free after widespread international condemnation. Samanyolu chief Hidayet Karaca, however, remains in prison for over five months.

Takeover of these media outlets ahead of the general elections in June will be the final nail on the media coffin in Turkey. These newspapers and TV channels are a single window for the Turkish public at a time when even mainstream media is toothless in covering sensitive topics. Hurriyet daily, second best-selling newspaper, was under systematic fire by government officials, including Erdogan, for reporting on the death sentence given to former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Turkish leaders claimed that the newspaper was sending a subtle signal that Erdogan will also face with a similar fate.

Turkish whistleblower Fuat Avni, who has a credible record of predicting government's plans, said Friday that the government is planning to take over the Dogan media holding, which also owns Hurriyet daily, if the outcome in upcoming elections favors the ruling party. Dogan media, the largest media conglomerate in the country, was forced to exercise self-censorship after the authorities slapped it with a massive tax fine in 2009 and then withdrew as a "gesture" shortly afterwards.

As in many nations, TV networks are the single most effective communications tool in shaping the public opinion in Turkey. The Turkish conservative electorate, which mostly constitutes the AKP's support base, usually get their news from TV channels and they rarely peruse newspapers. Given that Samanyolu and Bugun TV networks are the only visual media outlets that conservative people could watch, the government's attempt to shut them down is not surprising. But their closure will significantly black out the country's already struggling independent media.

Freedom House said in its latest index that Turkey is not a free country for journalists. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 149th out of 180 countries while Washington repeatedly voices concerns over the free speech.

Erdogan, whose government was easily brought down in 1997 after the mainstream media shaped the public opinion, has proven that he is skilled in gradually silencing the critical media and building his own loyal mouthpiece bulletins. These loyal, pro-government media has done everything but fair reporting. To prepare the public for an unpopular action, social media's paid trolls first bring up the idea. These issues are later picked up the pro-government media and then parroted by government officials.

For example, social media trolls announced that I will be kicked out of the country even before a relevant government decision was conveyed to police to arrest me last year. Similarly, trolls on Twitter correctly "predicted" Taraf journalist Mehmet Baransu's arrest.

It is troubling to see that pro-government journalists are promoting the takeover of the critical media on the Twitter, Facebook as well as on pro-government TV channels and newspapers. Last week, Erdogan's former speechwriter and a parliamentary candidate likened Samanyolu and Bugun TV channels to Roj TV, PKK's media outlet that is banned in Turkey.

Events in the past few years have shown that neither domestic opposition nor international pressure is sufficient in stopping Erdogan's determination to bury Turkey's hard-won democracy. He feels paranoid and cornered. And the election in June is his only way to restore his lost legitimacy. He has been jailing journalists or intimidating outspoken reporters. But shutting down entire newspapers and TV channels would be a whole new chapter in his bullying of the critics. He must be stopped.