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'Today's Zaman' chief editor now in Brussels exile

Dana RegevMarch 19, 2016

When Turkish authorities seized control of the daily newspaper "Zaman," some journalists were fired or resigned themselves. One of them is Sevgi Akarcesme, who left her home and fled to Brussels with a one-way ticket.

A photo taken in Ankara on March 6, 2016 shows the front page of the first new edition of the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Altan

Turkish authorities on March 4 seized control of the critical daily newspaper "Zaman," which has links to US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, accusing the paper of aiding terrorist groups.

The mass-circulation opposition newspaper has since reopened under heavy police guard, with the editors-in-chief removed from their posts or leaving voluntarily.

Among them is the now Brussels-based Sevgi Akarcesme, who fled her country with one suitcase and a vague future. Until March 6, she served as the editor-in-chief of "Today's Zaman," the English edition of the Turkish top-selling daily. Now, she's not entirely sure what tomorrow will bring.

"It wasn't the first time our newspaper had been raided, but it was definitely the most brutal raid," she told DW. "And this media witch hunt is not limited to our newspaper alone."

According to Akarcesme, "everyone who dares to criticize the government is somehow accused, detained, intimidated or imprisoned. So why should I take such a risk when I can speak my mind freely here?"

'Close to the IS mentality'

The Istanbul-based paper, established in 1986, has print and online editions both in English and Turkish. However, the English online version was taken down completely following the raid.

The Turkish editions are now being censored, under a new administration appointed by the government. The English printed version in still in circulation, albeit in extremely low numbers.

The top story in the Turkish printed edition after the new management was put in place showed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attending a ceremony to mark a key phase in the construction of a bridge across the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul.

"Basically, every media organization with a critical voice, which dares to question Erdogan, is being punished," Akarcesme said. "This is almost like the IS ["Islamic State"] mentality of looting: you just take over somebody else's property and legacy, and destroy everything."

In October, the Koza-Ipek media group was also seized by Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

In another case, two journalists from opposition newspaper "Cumhuriyet" - editor-in-chief Can Dundar and the paper's Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul - were taken into custody.

"It might be only a matter of time until they are arrested again, because they are criticizing Erdogan in their stories," said Akarcesme. Since Erdogan has already spoken out against the Turkish court, it could influence its future decisions.

Turkish anti riot police officers launch water cannon and tear gas to disperse supporters of the Turkish Zaman Daily newspaper OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse "Zaman" supporters in early MarchImage: Getty Images/AFP/O. Kose

'It's all about corruption'

It took Akarcesme exactly two days to realize she had no reason to stay on the newspaper's editorial board, or in Turkey at all. In the beginning, she and her team tried to print a Sunday edition without censorship - a lost cause.

"The moment the new administration saw the name of the columnists, they censored their pieces. For the first time in the history of 'Today's Zaman' the Sunday edition was not printed," she said.

Without even saying goodbye to her friends, she packed a suitcase and left for Brussels, where she was supposed to attend a conference. The only change in her plans was that she did not intend to use her return ticket.

"The government has been targeting our newspaper pretty much since the corruption investigations in 2013. People think that it's about a power struggle between the AKP government and the Gulen movement, but in fact it all comes down to that massive investigation," she said.

"Even though there was clear evidence of corruption, Erdogan started a war against the Gulen movement, which many in our newspaper sympathize with." She does not deny the fact that "Zaman" is "inspired by the teaching of Gulen," but claims that this is not a crime.

At the heart of the investigations was an oil deal with Iran. The oil was allegedly paid through illegal channels in gold, due to UN sanctions against Tehran.

The dozens accused were charged with money laundering, bribery and fraud, among them also a minister's two sons, an Iranian-Turkish businessman and the director of state-owned Halk Bank.

The rift between Erdogan and Gulen hit the headlines when Erdogan's government floated plans to close down private schools, most of them run by Gulen's Hizmet movement, exposing fractures in the premier's traditional power base.

The apparent feud followed mass protests, in which secularist demonstrators challenged what they described as Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian rule and moves to impose conservative Islamic values on society.

Akarcesme claims that the current turmoil only looks like another battle between Erdogan and Gulen, but in reality all criticism against the government is being monitored and persecuted, regardless of its political affiliation.

"Last week, three academics were put in jail for signing a peace deceleration - people who have nothing to do with the movement and nothing to do with the media," she said. "This is the atmosphere in the country now: fear."

'An open-air prison'

In 2015, Turkey was ranked 149 out of 180 countries in a survey of global press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, a figure Akarcesme had to deal with personally many times. "I have received a suspended imprisonment because of a tweet in which I criticized the prime minister - not even President Erdogan," she said.

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"I received 17 months on probation, with the condition that I don't repeat the same crime," she added. She is also supposed to attend a hearing next week in Turkey for allegedly insulting Erdogan on a different incident, but is not planning to be there.

"Just imagine what could happen to me in that hearing, now that I'm also part of a newspaper which is accused of terrorism. I could be detained, banned from leaving the country - even sentenced to jail."

The raid itself lasted about half an hour, she said, but so many things happened in this short time. Akarcesme was broadcasting the event live on the Periscope app, until police officers grabbed her and forcefully removed her from the executives' floor. "No one even hears about the smaller incidents," she said. "I couldn't hold my tears. There is no critical media left in the country."

Some journalists were fired from "Zaman" following the takeover, some resigned and some have stayed because they are afraid of losing their legal rights and livelihood, Akarcesme said. But for her, despite missing the food and sunshine already, landing on solid ground abroad was reassuring.

"I was in an open air prison in Turkey and felt extremely relieved when I landed in Brussels. This is about authoritarianism and silencing criticism in Turkey, and at least from here I can make my voice heard."