Turkey secretly launched criminal investigations into subscribers of Turkey’s one-time best-selling daily merely because the newspaper adopted an editorial stance critical of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
According to documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, a deputy governor in Turkey’s northern province of Ordu secretly sent a letter to the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office asking for a list of subscribers to the Zaman newspaper, the most widely circulated daily in Turkey before the government forcibly took it over in March 2016. The letter, dated August 18, 2016 and signed by Deputy Governor Niyazi Erten on behalf of the governor, demanded that the names of all Zaman subscribers in Ordu province and their addresses be sent to the governor’s state of emergency office.
The letter stated that the subscription list would be used as part of an investigation into the Gülen movement in the province, claiming that the group posed a threat to national security. Prior to the government seizure, Zaman’s corporate owners were seen as Gülen-linked businesspeople and were investigated on trumped-up accusations of terrorism. The secret document reveals that the government treated subscribers of the daily as potential terrorists as well.
Considering that Zaman sold over 1.2 million copies a day at its peak in January 2015, making the newspaper the most popular in Turkey, the Erdoğan government scandalously treated a huge number of people as potential terrorists just because they were subscribing to a critical newspaper. The government tried to force the newspaper into bankruptcy by running a campaign personally led by Erdoğan, who asked people at public rallies to cancel their subscriptions. State-owned enterprises such as Turkish Airlines removed Zaman from the list of newspapers provided at airports and on planes.
Although Zaman’s circulation dropped against the backdrop of the aggressive government campaign, the daily still managed to stay alive and retained its leading position in the market. According to a February 2016 report by BPA Worldwide, a prestigious company that audits the circulation of business and consumer magazines around the world, Zaman’s circulation in the second half of 2015 was 676,561. Zaman was the only Turkish newspaper that had been audited by the BPA since 2007. BPA is a founding member of the International Federation of Audit Bureaux of Certification (IFABC), a voluntary cooperative federation of audit companies in 34 countries.
The newspaper’s circulation dropped to 4,000 within a week of the government takeover in March 2016 as readers protested the unlawful seizure by cancelling their subscriptions in large numbers.
Yet, it appears months later the government went after the subscribers’ list to present it as evidence of terrorism in a pervasive criminal investigation of hundreds of thousands of people on dubious charges. Nordic Monitor has learned that during the violent takeover of the daily, the police destroyed the company servers and ransacked the IT centers in the newspaper building as they scrambled to cut off a live feed broadcasting events as they were unfolding during the raid. The data was never recovered because of the damage. The government managed to find a partial list by going through bank records that showed readers’ credit card payments to the newspaper.
On September 29, 2016 prosecutor Murat Çağlak referred the governor’s letter to his colleague Mesut Erdinç Bayhan and asked him to include it in investigation file No. 2016/39856, which was another criminal probe into Zaman’s administrators and journalists. That document was also stamped secret, suggesting that the government feared it would create problems if it was made public.
Legal experts speaking to Nordic Monitor said the governor’s office committed a crime by sending a letter to the prosecutor’s office, saying the violation cannot even be justified under the state of emergency that was in effect at the time. The executive decree that established emergency commissions within governor’s offices nationwide did not provide any such mandate. Experts also noted that the governor’s office cannot ask a prosecutor’s office to furnish them with a subscription list because of the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches, which apparently exists only on paper in Turkey.
In a more troubling demonstration of the scope of the witch-hunt against the nation’s one-time most highly circulated daily, an Istanbul municipality — which has no administrative role, unlike governor’s offices — also wrote a letter to the prosecutor’s office asking for a subscription list. According to the secret letter dated September 20, 2016 and sent from the Avcılar Municipality, Nurten Uğursoy, a municipal inspector, sent the names of all municipal employees including their spouses and children and asked the prosecutor whether any of them had subscribed to Zaman or the Bugün daily. Bugün, a major critical newspaper that was distributed nationally, was also seized by the government in 2015.
The role of municipalities in Turkey’s governance is confined to local matters such as garbage collection, the issuance of business licenses, providing funeral services and other local matters. They are jurisdictionally responsible to the Interior Ministry. They have no role whatsoever in any criminal or government investigation, yet Uğursoy dared to make such a scandalous request of the prosecutor, asking for information that was still confidential because of an ongoing probe.
However, defying the established rules, prosecutor Bayhan sent the partial subscriber list he managed to acquire to the municipality in order to help purge municipal workers who were found to be readers of a critical daily.