Erdogan Renews Putsch Purge With Targets in Media, Academia

  • Turkey detains editor-in-chief of opposition paper Cumhuriyet
  • More than 110,000 state employees have been fired or detained

Opposition member of parliament Sezgin Tanrikulu gestures as politicians hold copies of Cumhuriyet newspaper in front of the newspaper's headquarters

Photographer: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed efforts to root out opposition to his rule since July’s failed coup, with officials arresting the top editor of a major paper and firing more than 1,200 professors.

Police detained Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu and prosecutors issued arrest warrants for 12 other executives, writers and cartoonists at the daily on suspicion of assisting both Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Islamic preacher Erdogan accuses of masterminding the attempted overthrow, and the outlawed Kurdish rebel group PKK.

A protester holds a copy of Cumhuriyet outside its headquarters in Ankara on Oct. 31.

Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

The raids came after the government shut down more than a dozen news outlets, most of them Kurdish, and tightened anti-terrorism laws under emergency powers granted after the botched July 15 putsch. Erdogan told a crowd of supporters in the capital Ankara on Saturday that he’ll sign a law reinstating the death penalty for crimes including treason as soon as parliament passes it. Also on Saturday, the U.S. ordered families of employees at its Istanbul complex to leave, citing increased risk of terrorist attacks.

“The decrees issued over the weekend and today’s raid on Cumhuriyet constitute the last nail in the coffin of what has been a weakening democracy for a long time,” said Wolfango Piccoli, director of research at Teneo Intelligence in London.

Mayors Arrested

More than 10,000 state workers were fired over the weekend, while the elected co-mayors of Turkey’s most important Kurdish-majority city were jailed. That adds to the 100,000 people already ousted or suspended from the military, police, judiciary and academia since the coup attempt, which left more than 265 dead. Observers saw the expansion of the crackdown as a more decisive turn toward authoritarianism in a country that was only recently re-configuring its institutions in a bid to join the EU, which doesn’t allow capital punishment.

The president’s office, prime minister’s office and the ruling AK Party’s media affairs office didn’t comment on the latest crackdowns when reached by phone and text message on Monday. Speaking in a press conference after a cabinet meeting, government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus said the arrests at Cumhuriyet were related to an investigation opened Aug. 18 into the company that owns the newspaper rather than its editorial staff.

‘Purge Without Limits’

Among the Cumhuriyet writers detained was Kadri Gursel, who’s also head of the Turkey committee for the Vienna-based International Press Institute. He was taken into custody following a raid on his home.

“We are watching the complete extinguishment of press freedom in Turkey before our eyes,” IPI’s board said in a statement. “Having now fully discarded the rule of law, the Turkish government is removing the last critical voices from its path. Turkey’s international partners, who have tolerated President Erdogan’s obvious authoritarian ambitions for far too long, cannot allow these latest actions to proceed with impunity. ”

This is a “purge without limits,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit that advocates for press freedom. Amnesty International’s Europe Director John Dalhuisen called it “the latest wave in a post-coup purge which has turned Turkey’s once vibrant media landscape into a wasteland.”

The previous editor of Cumhuriyet, Can Dundar, had infuriated Erdogan by publishing stories revealing secret Turkish weapons shipments to neighboring Syria. Dundar fled the country after an assailant yelling "traitor!" shot at him outside an Istanbul courthouse, where he’d appeared to stand trial on charges that included treason. His attacker was freed from jail two weeks ago, but Dundar’s wife was detained at the airport and had her passport confiscated.

Erdogan had vowed Dundar would “pay a heavy price” for his stories, and the trial became a lightning rod for criticism of Turkey’s deteriorating record on free speech. The Turkish leader made jailing Dundar a personal issue, lashing out at EU and U.S. diplomats who attended the hearings as observers. 

‘Brain Drain’

Atilla Yesilada, an economist at GlobalSource Partners in Istanbul, said the clampdown, which was already undermining confidence in an economy that’s dependent on consumer spending, foreign investment and relations with the West, is now apparently moving into factions of the opposition that have no links to the failed putsch, risking further brain drain and capital flight.

"Almost 1 percent of the workforce has either been fired or detained on accusations of being Gulenists or PKK," Yesilada said by phone on Monday. "The secular-Westernized rich are afraid and they account for most of the bank deposits. If they choose to remain in foreign exchange or withdraw from the system altogether, that would be a major shock."

Yesilada said investor "panic" could set in later next month, when companies with large foreign exchange obligations have to buy euros or dollars to pay debt.

The lira traded unchanged after the flurry of news on Monday at 3.1065 per dollar. The currency has depreciated more than 6 percent this year, the worst loss in emerging markets after the Mexican and Argentine pesos.

‘Cartoon’ Life

More than 130 media organizations, including 16 television broadcasters and 45 newspapers, have been closed by the government since the coup attempt. The government granted itself emergency powers, suspending some defendants’ rights and allowing rule by decree, days after the attempt. The original three-month state of emergency was extended until late January.

Turkey ranks 151st of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, between Tajikistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Musa Kart, a cartoonist and Cumhuriyet board member, said his home was searched by police at 5 a.m. on Monday, online news portal Diken reported.

The charges of cooperating with Gulen and the PKK are "comical," Kart was cited as saying. “I’ve been trying for years to turn what we’re living through in this country into cartoons. Now I feel like I’m living in one."

— With assistance by Taylan Bilgic

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