Press crackdown could sour EU-Turkey summit
By Eric Maurice
EU-Turkey relations could suffer a blow after a Turkish court ordered on Friday (4 March) the takeover of an opposition newspaper.
Trustees have been appointed by an Istanbul court to take the management of Zaman at the request of the public prosecutor. The managerial as well as the editorial board will be changed.
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Zaman is close to Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in the US and opponent of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The court's decision is part of a crackdown on the financial activities of the Gulen movement.
"Today, we are experiencing a shameful day for media freedom in Turkey. Our media institutions are being seized," Sevgi Akarcesme, the editor in chief of Today's Zaman's, the English-language edition of the newspaper, told a crowd of people gathered outside Zaman's building.
“As of today, the constitution has been suspended,” she said, as the Turkish constitution does not allow seizure of printing houses and press equipment.
The European Commission expressed "high concern" and reminded that the EU "has repeatedly stressed that Turkey, as a candidate country, needs to aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices, including freedom of the media".
"Any country negotiating its EU accession needs to guarantee human rights, including freedom of expression, in line with the European Convention on Human Rights," a commission spokesperson said.
'Good and growing cooperation'
The attack on press freedom by Turkish authorities comes ahead of an EU-Turkey summit on common action to manage the current refugee crisis.
It happened a day after European Council president Donald Tusk was in Ankara to visit Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and while EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn was in the country visiting a refugee camp.
Ahead of the summit where European countries will ask Turkey to do more to fight migrant smuggling, reduce the flow of refugees and take back economic migrants denied asylum in Europe, the EU was trying to focus on the positive side of relations with Ankara.
On Thursday, Tusk praised the "good and growing cooperation".
On Friday, while the Istanbul court ordered Zaman's takeover, the EU commission adopted its second report on progress made by Turkey in the process to obtain a liberalisation of visas to Europe.
In a press release, migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos "commend[ed] the efforts made by Turkey".
Turkey's aim is to complete the visa liberalisation process by October this year. Otherwise, a Turkish official told EUobserver, it would "scrap" the agreement on readmission of irregular migrants.
Also on Friday, the commission announced the first €95 million of projects financed by a €3 billion fund to help Turkey with the 2.7 million Syrian refugees on its territory.
Behind the public statements and the good gestures, however, talks on the refugee crisis could be difficult on Monday.
In the third implementation report on the EU-Turkey joint action plan, also published on Friday, the commission suggested frustration at the pace of Turkey's efforts in stemming the flows.
"The number of people arriving irregularly to the EU from Turkey is still high for this period of the year when winter conditions were expected to contribute to a decrease in the number of arrivals," the report says.
"Turkey is urged to strengthen its action against smuggling of migrants, notably by increasing its cooperation with the EU and Member State actors," it says.
"More specifically, Turkey is requested to take decisive action against migrant smuggling; to further strengthen efforts to prevent irregular crossings from Turkey to the EU."
The takeover of Zaman and the international outrage could make public relations more difficult.
The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called on the EU to react to the event.
“The European Union cannot remain silent to the political seizure of Zaman newspaper, Today’s Zaman daily and Cihan news agency," the two journalists organisations said in a common statement, referring to news outlets of the Zaman group.
In a message posted on Twitter, the European Parliament rapporteur for Turkey, Dutch social-democratic MEP Kati Piri, wrote: "Feared for a long time, now happening: Zaman Media Group being silenced in Turkey. Crackdown on press freedom continues sadly."
The Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, deplored in a statement "an extremely serious interference with media freedom which should have no place in a democratic society".
“Today’s decision of the authorities to appoint trustees to Zaman newspaper is deeply worrying,” the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic was quoted as saying by Today's Zaman.
"This move not only further threatens media pluralism in the country, but also intimidates critical voices.”