Turkey and the European Union
Media freedom RIP?
A fresh round of arrests takes relations with the European Union to a new low
“WE HAVE no concern about what the EU might say, whether the EU accepts us as members or not.” The latest outburst from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, sent the lira down by 4% against the dollar amid growing worries over the direction the country is taking.
Mr Erdogan was responding to a rebuke by the European Union over arrests on December 14th of a police chief, journalists and soap-opera screenwriters linked to Fethullah Gulen, a Sunni cleric based in Pennsylvania. The EU's foreign-affairs boss, Federica Mogherini, and enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, warned that Turkey's hopes of becoming a member depended on “full respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights.” They called the arrests “incompatible with the freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy”. Mr Erdogan said the EU should “mind its own business and keep its opinions to itself”.
The arrests mark an escalation in Mr Erdogan's unremitting war against Mr Gulen and his followers. He insists they have set up “a parallel state” with the goal of overthrowing his Justice and Development (AK) party government. Until his fall from grace, the preacher was AK's unofficial ally. Critics say Gulenists in the security forces and the judiciary helped to forge evidence against hundreds of Turkish army officers charged with fomenting a coup.
Thousands of them have now been arrested or purged on similar charges. A power struggle between AK and the Gulenists erupted a year ago when a corruption probe implicated Mr Erdogan's inner circle. Mr Erdogan quashed the investigation, reassigning the prosecutors and police involved and vowing to destroy the “fake prophet” and his flock. His targets included Bank Asya, an Islamic finance house. Public trading in Asya was suspended three times and government-linked firms withdrew deposits. The bank's assets shrank by 40% in the first nine months of 2014. “Anyone who pisses off the president is a potential target,” comments one banker.
The case against the journalists, including Ekrem Dumanli, editor of Zaman, Turkey's biggest daily, is hazy. Istanbul's prosecutor, Hadi Salihoglu, said warrants had been issued against 31 people on charges of “establishing a terrorist group”. Turkish newspapers say they are accused of conspiring against a rival Islamic fraternity whose leader was arrested in 2009 on charges of belonging to al-Qaeda. Mr Gulen's instructions to followers to move against the group were reportedly given in coded language in Zaman and “Tek Turkiye”, a nationalist soap opera aired on Samanyolu, a Gulenist television channel.
Mr Erdogan has become more paranoid since the Gezi Park protests of June 2013. He blamed a global “interest-rate lobby” of Western bankers, foreign spies and media wanting to oust AK. The Gulenists have been added to the lobby; the graft scandal is just another arrow in its quiver. Now the EU, which Turkey supposedly wants to join, seems to be on the list, too.