Ekrem Dumanlı, editor-in-chief of the Zaman newspaper, waves to his staff and readers as he is taken for interrogation. (Credit: Selahattin Sevi, Zaman)
Ekrem Dumanlı, editor-in-chief of Zaman, waves to staff and readers as he's taken for interrogation. (Photo by Selahattin Sevi, Zaman)

After days of detainment, Ekrem Dumanli, editor of the Turkish newspaper Zaman, was released from prison today for lack of evidence. Dumanli was held under custody for an article that was published in his paper. However another detainee, Samanyolu TV General Manager Hidayet Karaca, was arrested on charges of forming and leading an armed terrorist organization. Alleged weapons of crime? Broadcasting a soap opera. In a highly politically motivated trial, Turkish journalists are paying a heavy price.

As a technology journalist, following the industry beat the whole week keeps me quite busy. That is why I do my best to keep Sundays only for my family. But on Dec. 14, my whole plan changed. I woke up to the news that my newspaper — Today's Zaman — was raided, and I rushed into my office.

That day, Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of our paper, was detained with Samanyolu TV Group’s Chairman Hidayet Karaca along with several other journalists, media workers and even a screenwriter.

As Today's Zaman reports, the case was built on charges of defaming an al-Qaeda-affiliated group known as Tahşiyeciler (Annotators). The prosecutor in charge of the operation claimed that the detained journalists defamed the group through print coverage and a soap opera that prompted police raids. It's been reported that the journalists have been interrogated on charges of plotting a coup and belonging to a terrorist organization.

Plotting a coup with a soap opera and a few news articles may sound strange. But in a country where some soccer fans face allegations of plotting against the government, one begins to lose the sense of being surprised. After awhile it starts to feel like a Kafka novel.

The crackdown was not a surprise. A Twitter user known by the pseudonym of Fuat Avni, announced a few days ago that the government would conduct an extensive operation against some 150 journalists, including the ones mentioned above. No one knows who Fuat Avni is and where he gets his information from. He claims to be one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s close aides and is famous for exposing insider information that proves to be accurate.

Fuat Avni's claims were taken seriously because Erdogan had hinted at the operation just two days before — proof that the prosecutors are politically motivated.

As Telegraph reports, the arrests follow a long campaign against affiliates of Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, who lives in a self-imposed exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Gulen has inspired a worldwide network active in education, charity and outreach. Both media groups are aligned with Gulen.

Last year, Erdogan declared Gulen as a betrayer after a graft probe scandal was uncovered. Erdogan warned that he would go after Gulen's supporters. "If reassigning individuals who betray this country is called a witch hunt, then yes, we will carry out this witch hunt,” he said while delivering a speech earlier this year.

Coup against press freedom

Hours before the crackdown, hundreds gathered at the newspaper's office to show their support. Dumanlı gave a defiant speech.

“This is officially a coup against freedom, free thought, free speech," Dumanlı said in front of hundreds of journalists and readers. "The government's attempts to silence free media will fail. Let those who have committed a crime be scared. We are not scared."

Around 1:30 p.m., he was escorted away by the Turkish police while the TV cameras were rolling. It was the first time in Turkish press history that an editor-in-chief was arrested in his office on live TV.

As he was taken to the police car, the crowd chanted “Free media doesn’t keep silent“ (Özgür Medya Susmaz), noting that critical media outlets are getting outnumbered in Turkey. Currently, a majority of the main Turkish newspapers or TV stations are owned or closely controlled by the people that are quite supportive of the current government (AKP).

"The time is to show solidarity" (Zaman Sahip Çıkma Zamanı) read another sign, making a reference to the paper’s name (Zaman) meaning "time" in English.

The crowd was very dense. It took almost an hour for Dumanlı to reach the main police station for interrogation. When he finally left the building, the international outrage grew.

The US State Department issued statement of concerns on raids on media, and the European Union condemned the media assault. CPJ expressed its concern on media crackdown. PEN International protested the mass arrests of journalists and screenwriters.

But Why Zaman?

With nearly 1 million sales daily, Zaman is the most circulated newspaper in Turkey and is aligned with the Gülen movement. In the first decade of 2000’s, the editorial team has been supportive of the Turkish AKP government policies. It was the time when AKP promised a more democratic constitution and integration with EU. However the relations turned gloomy when AKP started to fail its promises. The constitution reform didn't happen and new EU chapters weren't opened. A political unrest had begun.

When the infamous December 2013 corruption scandal erupted, things changed forever.

Zaman reported all the details of police raids on people associated with AKP government, including four ministers. Money stuffed into shoeboxes were found, footage of bribery and leaked phone conversations that sounded like confessions of corruption were published.

All four ministers resigned. But Erdogan declared an open war on Zaman for its critical views. Accreditation bans were imposed, journalists were intimidated and even some were deported. History repeated itself, and journalists became the scapegoat of the politicians.

What is next?

The journalists' imprisonment may only be the beginning of a wider crackdown on critical Turkish media. Putting the editor of the highest circulated newspaper behind bars is a clear threat against the freedom of expression and investigative journalism. There is also a strong possibility that Erdogan may even plan to confiscate these media groups by vague terror laws.

No matter how depressing the situation is, there are positive sides to this story as well. These are the times when you begin to value what true journalism is. You start to fully realize that this is not a job that is done on a 9-to-6 basis for a monthly paycheck. It’s to stand against oppressive ideas that paralyze our communities and our future. It’s the core essence of a true democracy for a free society and entrepreneurship. You should stand on your values with honour and dignity. The price may be high, but it’s worth it.

Despite the gloomy picture, I still keep my faith that there may still be people who are bound to law, democracy and universal human values. Set these journalists free! Now!

Deniz Ergurel is a technology journalist for Zaman Newspaper and is a Poynter fellow.