European Affairs

Perspectives: Turkey 404 Error: Europe not Found!     Print Email

aliaslanWhen you go to the web address of Turkey's -once- largest newspaper Zaman, an error message pops up frequently: "404. Page not Found! We're sorry, but we can't find the page you were looking for." The automated message is more about a serious failure in Turkish democracy than merely a technical glitch: Turkey's largest independent newspaper was brutally taken over by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 4th and turned into a mouthpiece for him. Zaman's government-regulated new webpage gives errors, because many links from the original version are missing, and it is a work in progress. The progress in Turkey, however, does not seem to be towards a viable member of the European Union. Given the lack of meaningful pressure in response to this authoritarian turn, 404 Error can also apply to EU: Europe not Found!

"It's probably something we've done wrong, now we know about it and we'll try to fix it," reads the rest of the error message at But don't take it as a confession from the Turkish government. They certainly know about their sin, however they will most definitely not try to fix it, simply because they feel they don't have to.  Enjoying the 49 percent support of the Turkish electorate and almost a free pass from Western allies, Erdogan’s regime has become bolder than ever. 

As a matter of fact, Zaman was 'legally' usurped and peaceful protestors were brutally attacked by the police only a few days before a major EU-Turkey summit on March 7. Erdogan and his friends were confident they would get away with this, just like the previous assaults to the press and other critics. It was a show of force to domestic opposition and a poke in the eye of the Europeans, who have become heavily dependent on Turkey in resolving the Syrian refugee crisis at their doorsteps and fighting ISIS terrorism. 

Turkey's increasingly autocratic regime has rightly calculated Europeans were desperate to sit at the table with Ankara no matter what. Eventually, to the disappointment of a growing chorus of human rights victims in Turkey, a deal was struck by the EU and Turkey on March 18, at another summit “dedicated to deepening Turkey-EU relations as well as addressing the migration crisis.” According to the official joint statement, “The EU and Turkey reconfirmed their commitment to re-energize the accession process” and “the fulfilment of the visa liberalization roadmap will be accelerated ...provided that all benchmarks have been met.” In return, Turkey would get paid billions and help ease Europe’s refugee crisis in various ways. 

Realistically speaking, Turkey's full EU membership has always been a long shot.  However, many democrats in Turkey have not stopped advocating for it because they believe it's the main incentive for reforms in a nation with weak democratic foundations. Their hands are emptied now, because you can't make the argument anymore that if Ankara stops reforming, the goal of integrating with EU would get more elusive. After all, Erdogan got one of the best deals from Europe when Turkish democracy hit bottom.  

Things were generally going in the right direction between 2002 and 2010, in terms of reforms under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. Ankara had met Copenhagen political criteria before it was allowed to start accession negotiations in 2005. Turkey largely curtailed the role of the military in politics, revised its constitution, abolished the death penalty and made other improvements. Those steps were not appropriately reciprocated by European Union, which was taken hostage by the blockage of Cyprus and the resistance of some influential nations. Public opinion in Europe was also not enthusiastic about the notion of integrating an 80 million-strength Muslim majority nation. 

Emboldened by victories of 2010, constitutional referendum and 2011 general elections, Erdogan started showing his true Islamist and anti-Western colors. For the AKP government, the EU process has always been an insurance policy against military coups. Now that the military was sidelined and public support was secured, Ankara felt that it didn’t have to put up with European pressure on reforms that comes with the accession process. Erdogan vowed Copenhagen criteria can be replaced with ’Ankara criteria’ if necessary. Eventually, he kept his promise, but with Ankara criteria alone.  Turkey was moved further East to the Middle Eastern domain: Corruption and unaccountability, lack of transparency, lost appetite for democratic reforms, ultra-nationalist populism, pumped-up polarization, domestic violence, proxy wars, intolerance for all forms of dissent and systematic assaults on freedom of expression and press.  

Erdogan's grudge against unfavorable press and criticism is not new. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Turkey as the world's top jailer of journalists in 2012 and 2013. Following the eruption of massive anti-government protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park and corruption scandal in 2013, the government pressure on the free media grew even stronger. In late 2014, Zaman was raided by the police and its editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanli was detained. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook were frequently shut down to block dissemination of information and discussion on serious evidence of corruption. Journalists, along with other intellectuals and regular citizens, were flooded by harassing court cases, which treated even the slightest criticism of Erdogan as an insult to the presidency. 

In 2015, a pro-Erdogan mob led by an AKP parliamentarian raided and stoned Hurriyet, a leading Turkish newspaper. A top Hurriyet columnist was physically assaulted in front of his house by a similar group. A few days before November 1, 2015 elections, the influential and independent Ipek media group was taken over by the government, turned into a government mouthpiece overnight much like Zaman and declared bankrupt in a few months. 

Erdogan further intensified crackdown on prominent journalists and what's left of the independent press after November 1 election victory. Can Dundar, Editor in Chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, and Erdem Gul, Ankara Bureau Chief of the same paper, were imprisoned due to their reports on illegal arms transfers by Turkish intelligence to Syria. Three months later, the Constitutional Court reversed the decision and the two journalists were released. In response, Erdogan said that he 'does not respect' and 'will not abide' with the High Court's decision and only continued his threats to the journalists. Zaman newspaper's dramatic takeover followed the next week. 

Technically, most actions against the journalists and media institutions in Turkey have been reinforced with a court decision. Therefore, the government likes to present them as part of due process. However, due process is a luxury in today's Turkey. Despite constant criticism in European Commission’s annual Progress Reports, courts generally do not act independently from Erdogan and ruling AKP. In the aftermath of the corruption scandal, a great number of the key judicial posts have been shuffled. Prosecutors and judges involved in anti-corruption cases or with a history of frying bigger fish were purged, fired or arrested. The government equipped itself with new legislative tools to further influence the judiciary. Pro-Erdogan prosecutors and judges were assigned to newly established special “Peace” courts. Consequently, heavily politicized court decisions against Erdogan's foes flourished. 

A favorite and convenient excuse for Ankara's strongmen in going after journalists and media institutions has been alleged links or sympathies with terrorist organizations. For example, Hizmet, a moderate religious movement which turned from an AKP enhancer to opposition, was declared as public enemy number one. Supporters of Hizmet movement have been accused of masterminding corruption cases and quickly branded as a “terrorist organization” although they have no history of violence. Confronted with a vast witch hunt, thousands of Hizmet sympathizers from all walks of life - including bureaucracy, media, business and education - have suffered serious blows. Even journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, who come from secular backgrounds, have been charged with allegedly collaborating with the “terrorist organization” of Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the Hizmet movement. The decision to appoint government trustees and take over Zaman newspaper was also based on the same premise. In the absence of any trial or a verdict, solely based on the request of a prosecutor and a consenting judge, Turkey's highest circulation newspaper, along with sister media organizations, were seized.    

Zaman’s takeover on March the 4th was reminiscent of scenes from the playbook of an authoritarian regime in Middle East instead of a NATO member and an EU candidate nation. Hundreds of police used tear gas and water cannon against peaceful protestors in front of the Zaman building. Police stormed into the building, kicked people out and invaded the administrative offices. The next day, the government-appointed administration fired the editor-in-chief of Zaman, Abdulhamit Bilici. The 30-year-old Zaman archive has been wiped from the web. On the first day of the invasion, government authorities had the paper prepared in a pro-Erdogan newsroom. Later, they had the job done by the remaining Zaman staff. The police still remain in the corridors and hallways, keeping their eyes on the journalists. One of my colleagues described the work atmosphere after the takeover as such: "We prepare the news articles in a way that the government representatives would approve, because otherwise they order our colleagues in the evening shift to take out critical pieces anyway. Practically, we are slaves who just wait their turn to get fired." 

What happened to my newspaper, for which I’ve been working for 27 years, was not a sudden death. In fact, Erdogan regime has been suffocating us for several years now. In the aftermath of the 2003 corruption scandal, we revised our editorial policy, which was previously more sympathetic with the government. We covered the allegations revolving around Erdogan, his family and cabinet members extensively - this is our original sin. Zaman reporters were soon banned from attending public events and press conferences by elected officials, mainly because they were asking the right questions courageously. 

As the senior Washington Correspondent of Zaman since 1997, I used to work closely with the Turkish Embassy. But gradually, I have been cut off from all my contacts there and eventually stripped from their mailing lists. After a certain point, they even denied me invitations for the Turkish national day celebrations open to the general public. The Turkish diplomats with whom I have had not only professional but also personal relationships stopped taking my calls or responding to my messages. They knew any connection or sympathy with me would seriously damage their career. 

I signed up for UN General Assembly in September 2014 but I was told by the Turkish Consulate Press Attache in New York that Zaman was banned from covering Erdogan’s program. When I went to Hotel Peninsula to cover US Vice President Joe Biden's meeting with Erdogan, Turkish security guards attempted to kick me out from the lobby. I resisted for some time, but intervening officers from New York Police Department convinced me it would be best for my own safety if I left. They had to escort me one block away from the hotel to protect me from the fury of Erdogan's bully guards. 

We don't know what awaits the independent journalists of Turkey. Chances are, things will continue to be unpleasant in the foreseeable future. The army of fired and unemployed journalists is growing larger. True journalism often gets treated like a crime. Erdogan heavily controls the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government, meaning that there are effectively no checks and balances. Civil society is suppressed and downsized. Opposition is inept and under-equipped. Government directly or indirectly dictates editorial policy of most of the conventional media which largely ignores the opposition. Minority Kurds, Alevis and others are under constant duress. 

Europeans must not have envisioned such a dramatic turn in Turkey when they started membership negotiations last decade. However, realpolitik and domestic concerns should not stop them from expressing their dismay and firmly pressuring Ankara. Otherwise, European Union might very well find a Syrian-style crisis within Turkey soon, only this time there will have no stable nation left to serve as a cushion.      


Ali H. Aslan is a Turkish journalist who has been working as senior Washington Correspondent of Turkey's largest newspaper Zaman until government takeover on March 4, 2016. 

*Perspectives is a periodic feature of European Affairs where Members or guests discuss topical and/or controversial  issues.

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