Attacks on Zaman test EU-Turkey ties

Last week, suspected supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States, took their confrontation with the Turkish state to Western Europe, attacking the French and German offices of one of Turkey’s most influential newspapers, Zaman.

In broad daylight on February 15, around 15 people, some of them masked, stormed Zaman France‘s offices in Pantin, northeast of Paris, threatened employees, broke windows, and damaged furniture and computers, the newspaper reported.

That evening, a suspected pro-PKK group threw Molotov cocktails on the paper’s premises in the German city of Cologne.

According to Zaman‘s editors, the attack in France has been claimed by a group allegedly close to the PKK, the “Euphrates Revolutionary Revenge Brigade.” This is the third time that the paper’s offices have been targeted in France, and similar attacks have taken place in Vienna and Zürich.

The EU is particularly anxious to show its determination to stop such attacks. Turkey, an emerging power in the Middle East and a crucial economic and political partner for the EU, has an axe to grind with Brussels. In particular, it deeply resents the opposition of some key member states like France and Germany to its full integration into the EU.

Any hint that EU countries would be soft on the groups that vandalized Zaman‘s offices would be seen by Ankara as evidence of double standards. In recent months, the EU has strongly criticized Turkey’s measures against the press, in particular the prosecution and jailing of dozens of journalists, mostly charged under controversial anti-terrorism legislation.

Jean-Philippe Mauer’s reaction is a sign that French authorities understand what is at stake. The deputy chairman of France’s ruling party, Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), called on the Interior Ministry to take all necessary measures to protect the newspaper’s offices, Zaman reported. The attacks follow complaints from Zaman officials that the French police had failed to provide security as requested for its personnel in France.

The French authorities have started an investigation while the German police have reportedly arrested two suspects.

The acts of vandalism took place on the anniversary of the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in February 1999 in Nairobi. According to some analysts, PKK sympathizers argue that Zaman is pro-government and, in a crude amalgam, therefore shares the blame for what they see as failed Turkish policies in its Southeastern provinces, a region mainly inhabited by Kurds.

Zaman (“The Time” in Turkish) is connected to Fethullah Gülen, a powerful religious brotherhood close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party. It also publishes an English edition, Today’s Zaman.

The attacks have been strongly condemned by most European institutions and political groups. Underlining that “freedom of the press and freedom of expression are the core values of European culture,” the European Parliament’s Rapporteur on Turkey, Dutch Christian Democratic MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten, called on France and Germany “to conduct in-depth investigations in order to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

“Terrorism is about intimidating people. The PKK wanted to intimidate the journalists working for Zaman,” said Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, vice chair of the Group of Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament, according to the newspaper. “We want media representatives and journalists to be able to work in freedom, free from intimidation and fear.”

Dunja Mijatovic, representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), also reacted, saying, “These attacks not only create fear in those directly affected. They also damage media freedom by attempting to silence journalists for their reporting.”