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'Erdoğan is killing journalism,' says Today's Zaman editor forced out after takeover

A copy of Zaman, with a headline that reads 'Suspended, the constitution,' is held up the day after the daily was taken over by court-appointed trustees. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Since the Turkish daily Zaman and its English-language sister publication Today's Zaman were taken over by court-appointed trustees last month, over accusations of terrorist propaganda, the papers' journalists have witnessed riot police fill their newsrooms, the arrests of colleagues, and the loss, through resignations and dismissals, of fellow journalists.

Sevgi Akarçeşme, then editor-in-chief of Today's Zaman, was in the paper's newsroom on March 4, when police enforced the court's takeover order. The journalist, whose contract was later terminated by the new trustees for "acting against the interests of the company," said that after seeing changes to editorial content and amid security concerns, after the sentencing and arrests of colleagues, she left the country.

When Akarçeşme visited CPJ's New York offices last week she told Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova about the takeover of Today's Zaman, and how President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's crackdown on the Turkish media is affecting press freedom.

Extracts of their interview, which has been edited for clarity, are published here.

Sevgi Akarçeşme, pictured in CPJ's New York office, lost her job as editor-in-chief of Today's Zaman after the takeover, and receives harassing messages on social media. (CPJ/Kamal Singh Masuta)

Tell us about the raid on your newspaper. You were in the office that day. What happened?

On the night of March 4, hundreds of police officers flooded the building and physically blocked us from the executive floor. I was recording the police action when an officer said, "Sweep these women off of this floor!" Then two big female officers took me by the arms and started pushing me. I decided that it's useless to fight them. So I went downstairs to my office on the third floor, where I made a live connection with this small, critical television station [Can Erzincan TV,] that was one of the few Turkish outlets covering the takeover.

These were anti-terror police--because authorities are accusing us of links to terrorism and terrorism propaganda. We [had been] given a court order that afternoon that said we were supporting the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] and FETÖ [an alleged terrorist organization.] There is no evidence provided to these accusations. The alleged link to the PKK stems from the purported testimony of a secret witness. The court order simply states that we are receiving orders from Fethullah Gülen, [an Islamic cleric and supporter-turned-critic of the Turkish government who is living in self-imposed exile.]

Were you able to print the edition that day?

We went into early publication. We printed our front page--the last front page of Today's Zaman as we know it--black [in protest]. The international media immediately began to call us. CNN International, the BBC, you name it... But I regret to say that we received support from very few Turkish media.

Why do you think there was less coverage about the takeover in Turkish media?

The mainstream media in Turkey are scared to report on critical stories. From the television stations, it was only Can Erzincan TV that was reporting what was happening to us live. After the takeover of the Koza İpek Group [and its stations] Bugün TV and Kanaltürk TV, some of their journalists began working for this local television station. The government knows that it does not have a wide reach, so authorities haven't shut it down yet. But it's not available everywhere, it doesn't have national access.

Are other stations, such as Halk TV, still able to report independently?

Halk TV is still free and independent. But when you think about the overall Turkish audience, that station too has very limited access. Its main audience is made up of CHP [opposition party] supporters. What Erdoğan cares about is consolidating his own base, so he doesn't care much about [smaller outlets such as] Can Erzincan TV or Sözcü TV. At least, not yet. Plus, by allowing these outlets to exist, he can point to them and say that there are a lot of critical media in Turkey. But soon enough, I am certain, these media will not have the means to exist because advertisers are scared to place ads with them. Their audiences alone won't be enough to sustain them [through subscriptions and sales].

Are advertisers under pressure as well?

Yes, but not only them. The government prevents the direct distribution to subscribers of critical newspapers, for instance recently established critical titles such as Özgür Düşünce which started after the takeover of the Koza İpek Group. Critical titles now are only available on newsstands, and not all of them. Erdoğan is killing journalism. It's not just about Zaman and Today's Zaman. Everyone is targeted.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: After a court order appointing new trustees for the Feza media group, Cihan Media Distribution, which is a division of the group, said last month that it would stop distributing four titles to subscribers, according to news reports.]

What happened to Today's Zaman after the March 4 takeover?

The next day we went to the office early. There was a police presence everywhere, including in the newspaper's cafeteria. At the entrance of the executive floor. At the gate, standing with their rifles... In the corridors, outside the newsroom. We had to work under a heavy police presence.

Our next edition was almost completely ready and it was supposed to go into publication. The managing editor, Celil Sağır, [who was later fired by the new trustees] submitted the newspaper to the new administration and said this was our tomorrow's paper. The trustees looked at the newspaper ... Once they recognized the faces of our columnists, they said their columns would be removed. At that point, I said that I didn't want my name to appear in the newspaper, and so did my colleagues on the editorial staff. I'm glad that my name did not appear on that censored version. Hours later, after figuring out what the stories in the paper were about, the trustees removed the critical ones as well. We don't know who they had consulted with to have those removed. A mediator between the trustees and the newspaper's staff was sent to talk to our managing editor. Celil was told that the new administration does not want any stories that were "critical of Turkey" in Today's Zaman. That means, in the language of the government, any critical article about the president and the administration's policy. The government makes such stories synonymous with terrorism and, unfortunately, a lot of people in Turkey buy into that narrative.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The newly appointed editor-in-chief of Today's Zaman, Bercan Tutar, did not immediately respond to CPJ's request for comment.]

You mentioned that you have received menacing messages from government supporters over social media. Are you still being harassed in this way?

Yes, I still receive messages, calling me a traitor, a terrorist, a terrorist collaborator, or a spy. I block most of them, but they haven't stopped.

Turkey has been through crackdowns on freedom of expression before. What's different about this one?

It is not only the well-known news outlets like Zaman that are being intimidated and silenced. [Authorities] are targeting even minor and marginal ones, like the pro-Kurdish İMC TV. Bengü Türk TV was also taken off Türksat. Authorities are removing every critical voice at the moment. That's alarming. There are only a handful of media critical of the government that are now left on the market.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Türksat removed the signal for İMC TV on February 26, and the signal for Bengü Türk TV, a privately owned channel known to be close to the opposition Nationalist Movement Party, on March 1, according to reports.]

What impact does the international community have in this environment?

Because of the Syrian refugee crisis, the Europeans don't seem to care about what happens to press freedom in Turkey. The same goes for the U.S. As long as it has some form of cooperation from Turkey on fighting Islamic State it is ready to turn a blind eye to [the violation of] fundamental rights. Critics have said that Obama's statements on press freedom were not directly made to Erdoğan [when the U.S. President met with him recently.]

International journalists in Turkey have also come under pressure in recent months. It seems no one is immune to the persecution.

Someone recently formulated the situation very precisely before me--in Turkey, if you are a foreign journalist, they want you out. If you are a Turkish journalist, they want you in [prison].

Who are the journalists under the most threat in Turkey today?

I am most worried about the journalists in prison. Nobody cares about them at the moment. They are forgotten. When I try to put myself in their shoes, I feel depressed and hopeless. [In many cases] there is no indictment, no due process observed. It's like in the old times--you are sent into a dungeon and you spend the rest of your days there.

Right now the international watchdogs, which are doing a great job, are simply ignored. The Turkish government cares only about consolidating its own base and keeping up its approval rating.

I also worry about my colleagues, who have already been dismissed from their jobs or will soon become unemployed. It's like an earthquake happened and we are all under the rubble. So, the first priority is to survive.

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