Turkey secretly launched criminal investigations into millions of people who were reading, listening to or watching the broadcasts of 131 media outlets that were unlawfully shut down by the government.
According to a secret document obtained by Nordic Monitor, victims who were detained as part of the crackdown on a civic group in Turkey were investigated to ascertain if they had subscribed to any of the 131 critical media outlets that were shuttered by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The scandalous document, signed by Haşim Çakmaklı, a police chief in Turkey’s resort city of Alanya, situated in Antalya province, reveals the extent of the crackdown on freedom of the press and expression in Turkey.
Çakmaklı cited Erdoğan’s presidential decree-law No. 668, which closed down 131 media outlets on false terrorism allegations without any judicial or administrative probes, as the basis for his investigation. He wrote in the document that three Turkish nationals who were investigated by the prosecutor’s office must be subject to scrutiny to determine if they had subscribed to any of these media outlets. The goal was to engineer so-called criminal evidence against the victims based on their preference in books, magazines and newspapers or choice of TV and radio stations. The police chief ordered investigators to find out whether they bought books or subscribed to magazines or newspapers that were published by the shuttered media outlets.
Decree-law No. 669, which was issued by Erdoğan on July 27, 2016, ordered the closure of three national news agencies, 16 TV networks, 23 radio stations, 45 newspapers, 15 magazines and 29 publishers and distribution networks. The move was the largest-ever crackdown on critical, independent and opposition media in Turkey to date, with thousands of journalists and authors not only becoming unemployed overnight but also subjected to sweeping terrorism probes. The government also moved in to seize the assets of the media outlets, while their corporate owners were prosecuted, indicted or convicted under abusive counterterrorism laws.
The secret document reveals that the crackdown was not limited to media outlet journalists, employees, managers and owners but in fact extended to subscribers, listeners and viewers in the widest dragnet cast to date by the Erdoğan government to stifle freedom of expression. Although the police chief listed only three victims as subjects of the investigation with respect to subscriptions to critical media publications in this particular document, dozens of other documents previously uncovered by Nordic Monitor have confirmed that many people were investigated under the same pretext in various provinces in what was seen as a deliberate and systematic witch-hunt that targeted legitimate critics of the government.
Police chief Çakmaklı sent the order to the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office on February 6, 2017, asking for a check on people listed in the document, which is also bizarre given the fact that the police cannot order a prosecutor to furnish information. It also shows the obliteration of the separation between the executive and judicial branches of the government in Turkey. Çakmaklı said information and documents showing when the suspects subscribed to these media outlets, how many copies they bought, to which address the publications were delivered and whether they referred anybody else for a subscription should be sent to the counterterrorism unit of his police department along with payment stubs, if available.
The police instructions followed an earlier order by public prosecutor Erdem Işık as part of criminal investigation case No. 2017/1332 into victims listed as Bahriye Tuğ Taşdemir, Adem Atik and Ismail Yörükmez, who were prosecuted just like more than half a million people who have been detained in the last three years because of their critical views of the Erdoğan government. Işık also wanted the police to run a check on these people’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, to review customs and immigrations data when they went abroad and to which countries went, as if taking a vacation or going on a business trip overseas was a criminal offense.
Işık was rewarded for his services and appointed to the Izmir Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in 2017, while Çakmaklı was promoted to deputy police chief of Antalya province.
The total number of people who bought books, subscribed to magazines and newspapers or listened to and watched these 131 media outlets amounted to millions given their popularity in Turkey. The government essentially treated millions as possible suspects in a sweeping investigation that demonstrated the blatant abuse of the criminal justice system by the current government.
Among the shuttered media outlets was Zaman, Turkey’s one-time best-selling daily, which was targeted because the newspaper had adopted an editorial stance critical of the Erdoğan government. The government forcibly took it over in March 2016 and closed it down in July. Prior to the government seizure, Zaman’s corporate owners were seen as Gülen-linked businesspeople and were investigated on trumped-up accusations of terrorism.
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 subscribed 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 afloat 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 that 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 accusations.
Another publication listed in decree law No. 668 was the Gonca children’s magazine, which was published monthly and was the highest-selling children’s publication in Turkey before the government unlawfully seized it along with other companies owned by Kaynak Holding. Kaynak Holding owned dozens of companies and maintained diverse business interests including the largest publishing house in Turkey. The government unlawfully seized it in 2015 over claims that its corporate owners were aligned with US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, a vocal critic of the Erdoğan regime. Gonca was selling around 50,000 copies on a monthly basis.
Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) show that 211 journalists and media workers were in jail as of March 2019. Detention warrants are outstanding for 168 journalists who live in exile or remain at large in Turkey.