In Erdogan’s Turkey, space for media freedom continues to shrink
ANKARA - When suspected Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists organised a deadly attack on Turkish activists in Suruc on the Syrian border in July, respected newspaper commentator Kadri Gursel responded with a tweet critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"It's embarrassing that foreign leaders call the person who is the number one cause of the ISIS terror in Turkey to present their condolences for Suruc," he tweeted.
Gursel was referring to allegations -- vehemently denied by Ankara -- that Erdogan had supported jihadists in Syria in the hope they would oust the Syrian regime.
The response by his newspaper Milliyet -- long seen as a respected and mainstream title -- was swift and merciless.
Gursel, who started working for the paper in the 1990s and began his column in 2007, was fired the same day.
The paper said Gursel's comments were journalistically unethical and violated its editorial principles. It condemned what it termed his "subversive attitude."
His case highlights the problems of the Turkish opposition press as Erdogan pushes a relentless offensive against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels and prepares for snap legislative elections on November 1.
The past weeks have seen the arrest and deportation of international journalists, attacks on the Hurriyet newspaper's headquarters and a probe opened against the paper's owners for alleged "terror propaganda".
On Monday, the authorities raided the premises and detained the managing editor of the magazine Nokta for a cover satirising Erdogan.
"Erdogan wants to restore his party as the single party of government," Gursel said.
"To achieve his goal, he is seeking to silence remaining critical voices in traditional media" by forcing owners to dismiss critical journalists, "terrorising" reporters by attacking their editorial headquarters and opening legal cases on charges of insulting the president, Gursel said.
Milliyet is owned by the Demiroren Group, one of Turkey's largest conglomerates with interests in energy, construction and media. Its chief, Erdogan Demiroren, is widely seen as close to the president.
Mehves Evin, another pro-opposition Milliyet columnist, was fired last month.
"I will not surrender. I will keep on writing!" she tweeted.
"This is not the first and will not be the last," said Asli Tunc, professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University.
"This is unfortunately a cleansing operation -- a result of a government agreement with media bosses ahead of the election."
At least 140 journalists have been fired over the last couple of months, according to a report from EU-funded Press for Freedom Project.
"There is no sign of hope. Press freedom is declining in Turkey," said Yusuf Kanli, veteran journalist and project coordinator.
The pro-government Star newspaper's columnist Cem Kucuk accused leading Hurriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan of backing the outlawed PKK and media outlets perceived to show similar backing earn routine accusations of treachery.
"We could crush you like a fly if we want. We have been merciful until today and you are still alive," Kucuk wrote on September 9.
Hurriyet's Istanbul headquarters was attacked twice last week by pro-government demonstrators who accused the paper of misquoting Erdogan.
Turkish prosecutors on Tuesday opened a probe against the Dogan Media Group, which owns Hurriyet and other outlets, for alleged "terrorist propaganda" over its coverage of the PKK conflict.
"As the elections approach, the space for media to operate freely continues to shrink at an alarming rate," Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Free Expression Director at PEN American Center, said.
Turkish police early this month swooped on the Ankara-based offices of Koza-Ipek media group -- close to Erdogan's political rival, the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen -- after a report documenting weapons shipped from Turkey to ISIS in Syria.
Korkmaz Alemdar, professor of communications, said "we cannot talk about media freedom" in Turkey under Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), in office since 2002.
He added the general public were often unaware of critical media sites and took their information from state TV.
International media are also affected.
Turkish authorities last month arrested on terror charges two British reporters and their Iraqi translator working for US-based Vice News.
The British pair were deported but their translator Mohammed Ismael Rasool is still being held.
The European Union (EU) voiced concern about the arrests and warned any country seeking to join the EU "needs to guarantee respect for human rights, including freedom of expression."
Turkey is a long-standing candidate for membership of the 28-nation EU, beginning its accession talks in 2005, but the process has been bogged down for years over complaints of its human rights record.
Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink was deported after being detained during clashes between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces.
Ankara also accused the BBC of PKK propaganda over a report on the outlawed group's female fighters in northern Iraq.
"The repression of press freedom in Turkey has continued systematically since 2008," Gursel said.
"This latest wave is only a new chapter towards the full submission which is the ultimate target," he added.