Turkish Journalists in US Fear Ripple Effects of Turkey’s Media Crackdown

Turkish Journalists in US Fear Ripple Effects of Turkey’s Media Crackdown

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NEWARK, New Jersey — Turkish journalists working in the United States are expressing growing concerns over a sweeping media crackdown in their home country. Many worry the crackdown will curtail press freedoms in Turkey and sever key media links to the Turkish American community here.

“If the Turkish government seizes control and closes down Cihan News Agency, our mother company based in Istanbul, I have no idea how are we going to operate here,” said Orhan Akkurt, a reporter for the Turkish-language Zaman Amerika, an online publication that serves the Turkish American community. “I’m getting very worried.”
The massive crackdown on Turkish media came just a few days before the country’s national elections on November 1. Those elections brought an unexpectedly convincing win to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which garnered 49 percent of the 54 million votes cast — enough to control 316 of the 550 seats in parliament.

“There was a huge turnout among Turkish voters in New York and New Jersey during the elections,” Akkurt said. “They cast their ballots at the Turkish consulate, and the number … was higher than the previous [election] last June.”

Turkey has held two general elections this year, the first on June 7 and the second on November 1. The earlier election resulted in a hung parliament where no single political party holds an absolute majority.

But in the weeks after the Nov. 1 election at least 70 journalists critical of Erdoğan and his policies were fired—several were even assaulted—and the offices of pro-opposition media have been raided.
The president “does not want any opposing voice,” according to Akkurt, because of the mounting corruption investigations against his administration and members of the AKP.

Under Turkish law, the president must sever all ties with political parties. But Erdoğan, who used to be Turkey’s prime minister before he was elected president last year, was a member of the AKP.

Erdoğan also indicated, in several reports, that as part of a “new era,” he intends to see more powers being transferred to his presidency.
“We condemn this assault against the press, the possibility of having a dictator,” said Akkurt, who covers a variety of issues in New Jersey and New York. “It will be very hard for us and our [Turkish American] readers.”

As a parliamentary government, the prime minister in Turkey is the head of government. The role of president, who represents the country, is more symbolic, like that of the Queen in the United Kingdom.

According to the latest census data, the U.S. is home to about 150,000 Turkish Americans. A majority of them live in the northeast, mostly in New York City and in several cities in New Jersey, including Burlington Township, Paterson and Clifton.

However, data from the Assembly of Turkish American Associations show the population of Turkish Americans is estimated to be about half a million.

“Most Turkish people are business-minded. They like to start their own small businesses when they settle in America,” Akkurt said. “Turkish students like to come here to study English and earn their master’s degrees.”

As the biggest Turkish news outlet based in the United States, he says that many of Zaman Amerika’s readers rely on the publication for information about Turkey as well as what’s happening in the Turkish American community.

“If he [Erdoğan] would also shut down our news agency,” he added, “it would surely cut the link to our home country.”

According to several reports, the government has described the raids on some Turkish broadcasters as being part of a criminal investigation into the activities of their channel’s parent company—and not an attack of freedom of expression.

In a statement published in The Guardian, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said: “This is a legal process. Our government did not intervene. We did not consider intervening and we did not find [intervening] right. About press freedom in Turkey, everybody sees the insults made against our president, [the] AK party, me on the press and in the election campaigns. Everybody expresses their opinions freely.”

So far, in the last 20 days, the Turkish government has seized two major news channels and two newspapers. Seventeen television stations have been shut down, and 4 journalists have been arrested.
Mahir Zeynalov, the Washington Bureau chief editor of Today’s Zaman, the largest English-language publication in Turkey, believes the impact of the crackdown on media in his home country will soon be felt in the United States.

The pace of the media crackdown is astounding, he says, and the government wants to silence journalists until only very few remain.
“It wont be surprising to lose my job as a correspondent in the coming weeks,” Zeynalov said in an email. “I would be just sharing the fate of other Turkish journalists who go through thick and thin every day for doing our job.”