Two days after Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at a crackdown against the “evil forces” of his rival Fethullah Gulen, Turkish police embarked on a comprehensive operation to arrest prominent journalists, producers, scriptwriters and even police chiefs allegedly aligned with Gulen.
The arrests came close to the one-year anniversary of an enormous scandal that was predicted to bring down Erdogan, who was the prime minister then. In that operation, politicians, businessmen, the sons of three of Erdogan’s ministers and others in Erdogan’s inner circle were accused by police of corruption.
At the time, Erdogan responded by firing thousands of police officers, police chiefs and members of the judiciary and his government survived. Opposition figures said that the latest series of arrests were the second stage in routing out supporters of Gulen, a powerful imam living in exile in the U.S.
The raids were predicted on December 10 by a now-famous Twitter account run by “Fuat Avni,” whose identity remains a mystery. In his tweets, Avni predicted that a number of journalists, including Ekrem Dumanli, the editor in-chief of the pro-Gulen English language newspaper Zaman.
Rumors mounted that the raid would take place on December 14. In anticipation, employees and supporters of the paper gathered outside the newspaper’s headquarters in Istanbul. Police initially arrived at 7:15 am at which time they were repulsed by the crowd.
With shouts of "The free press cannot be silenced," Dumanli made an impassioned speech to the crowd, challenging police to arrest him, which was precisely what the police were doing to the chairman of a TV group in another location in Istanbul.
Dumanli tweeted a picture of himself in his office, with the comment, "Officers [forced] back because of democratic reaction of my friends. I am at my place and wait."
Speaking to reporters immediately before police came to arrest him, Hidayet Karaca, head of the Samanyolu TV, said, "This is a shameful sight for Turkey. Sadly in 21st century Turkey this is the treatment they dish out to a media group with tens of television and radio stations, internet media and magazines."
In inside Zaman’s offices, a live YouTube feed was set up to record the events and intimidate police. Reporters tweeted in real time about the police raids and sent out the link to the live feed.
At 2 pm, the police returned, successfully entered the building and arrested Dumanli. "Let those who have committed a crime be scared," Dumanli said as he was led away by the police. "We are not scared."
In a show of solidarity, Dumanli was visited by three former parliamentarians who were deputies in Erdogan’s AK party before he was arrested. In addition, thousands gathered in front of the Caglayan courthouse in ?stanbul in support of those taken by police. Barriers set up by police blocked entrance to the courthouse while hundreds of officers and two water cannons stood by.
In addition to several police vehicles that were stationed around the Zaman daily's headquarters, a police helicopter hovered over the building when the police came to detain Dumanli.
In all, by the end of the day, 31-32 arrest warrants had been issued with 11 people detained in raids across Turkey. Those arrested have been charged with forming and directing an armed terrorist organization and trying to seize control of the state.
Istanbul's Deputy Public Prosecutor Orhan Kapici refused to disclose whether or not Gulen was on the list of those slated for arrest.
Reacting to the arrests, U.S. State Department spokewoman Jen Psaki said the administration was "closely following" the events.
"Media freedom, due process and judicial independence are key elements in every healthy democracy and are enshrined in the Turkish constitution," she said. "As Turkey's friend and ally, we urge the Turkish authorities to ensure their actions do not violate these core values and Turkey's own democratic foundations."
The European Union, to which Turkey aspires to become a member, issued a sharply worded statement through its Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini and its Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn which read in part:
"The police raids and arrests of a number of journalists and media representatives in Turkey today are incompatible with the freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy. This operation goes against the European values and standards Turkey aspires to be part of."
The arrests have been condemned by European journalists and advocates of press freedom. Speaking shortly before the arrests, based on the rumors of the impending round-up of Erdogan's opponents, William Horsley, international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media and media freedom representative of the Association of European Journalists, gave a statement to the Zaman.
"The Association of European Journalists protests in the strongest terms against the unlawful intimidation by state officials of journalists and other free voices in Turkey, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, backdoor pressures on media bosses, and unacceptable smear campaigns against those who seek to expose corruption and official abuses," Horsley said.
Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, tweeted, “We are greatly alarmed by reports of mass detentions of journalists in #Turkey this morning.”
Turkey imprisons more journalists per year than any other country in the world, including Iran (which ranks as second). Erkan Ipekci, a leading Turkish journalist said, “Since 2009, some 183 journalists have ended up in prison, 63 of whom are still in jail. Since then, we have begun to feel ever more the effects of amendments to anti-terrorism laws and those to the criminal code introduced in 2005 with European support.''
Ipekci was the winner of the International Reporter of the Year Award, which is given annually by the National Union of Italian Reporters for his work defending imprisoned Turkish journalists.
A new criminal code was ostensibly introduced by the Turkish government, in order to meet European standards necessary for Turkey to be accepted into the European Union. However, secularists and journalists feared Erdogan would use some of the regulations to favor Islamists and suppress free speech by journalists.
Indeed, at the time, journalists saw their phones tapped and accusations of “terrorism” made after publication of articles covering activities not to the liking of Erdogan’s Islamist government.