It was a pleasure to recently meet Celil Sagir, the Managing Editor of Today’s Zaman, an English-language sister publication of Zaman, Turkey’s largest circulated paper. But the meeting was held in adverse circumstances, and soon after we parted ways, Sagir informed me that he had been sacked by a board of trustees that have been appointed to run his newspaper group, ending his twenty-year association with the paper.
Zaman has been in the forefront of calls for an investigation into the wheeling and dealing of the Turkish political leadership. The fact that the media house is affiliated to Fethullah Gülen, the US-based cleric who was once an ally of Erdogan, plays into this.
Recently, state administrators seized control of Zaman as the Erdogan government said that authorities were investigating whether the newspapers were involved in illegal funding of Gülen’s group, a charge they deny.
Erdogan said the 2013 investigation, which centered on ministers and business people close to him, was orchestrated by Gülen. He said followers of the cleric - who denied the allegations - had infiltrated the police and judiciary and were plotting a coup. The graft investigation was dropped after a year. But two other papers linked with the group, Bugun and Millet, were taken over in October.
Since Erdogan became president in 2014, 1,845 court cases have been filed against individuals for insulting him. Insulting the president in Turkey leads to prosecution as it is a crime punishable by jail - though neither Erdogan nor the law has defined what constitutes such an insult. Can you imagine how many people would be in jail in Pakistan if such a law was in place, especially during the tenure of Asif Zardari?
In my conversations with the soft-spoken Sagir, who comes across as a thorough professional, what became clear was that the government was punishing his newspaper for its repeated calls to investigate graft and corruption.
A walk outside the Zaman offices in Istanbul confirmed my worst fears. The place has been taken over by the government. Barricades have been placed, police are in full attendance. Everyone going in and out are monitored. The paper is now censored and its circulation has dropped to barely 1 per cent of what it was. Like other media houses, it seems the paper is being run into the ground.
What struck me in all this was the similarity with what has happened over the years in Pakistan. Ayub Khan placed administrators for newspapers as well when they criticised his dictatorship or his pro-US policies. Newspapers were taken over, and staff retained but told to behave. Those who protested were laid off, not taking into account their decades of service, with the result that they lost all their financial benefits.
While Pakistan can celebrate the fact that its media is one of the freest today in the Muslim world, one worries for the fate of Turkey - a modern country that bridges both East and West. How long can one put the lid on corruption?
Now terror is being used to clamp down on media freedom. In the wake of a spate of suicide bombings in Istanbul and Ankara, the Turkish leadership has called for a broadening of anti-terrorism laws which have already been used to detain academics and journalists
Zaman is not a solitary example. With the seizure or closure in recent months of several newspapers and broadcasters taken off air, journalists say they are having to think twice about the consequences of their work.
The trial of the editor-in-chief and Ankara bureau chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper - who faces life in prison on espionage charges - is a case in point. The paper had published footage it said showed the government helping send weapons to Syria. The government said the trucks involved were carrying aid and that the trial was a matter of national security. All this seems familiar to Pakistanis.
With our prime minister facing corruption charges over the Panama Papers, one wonders what the government will do to muzzle free speech. Already we have seen a black law, the Cyber Crime Bill, which focuses on punishing free speech more than it does on punishing those who abuse it, being passed by the National Assembly. Turkey’s media faces a grim fate. Let us hope we don’t follow in their footsteps.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 18th, 2016.
Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.