ISTANBUL (AFP) – The Turkish government on Monday faced accusations of eroding democracy and press freedoms after over two dozen people were arrested in raids against media critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The swoop on Sunday chiefly targeted a newspaper and television closely allied to the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a onetime close ally of Erdogan who has become his arch enemy.
Among a total of 27 people arrested in the nationwide raids were Ekrem Dumanli, the editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily newspaper which is closely linked to Gulen and Hidayet Karaca, the head of the pro-Gulen Samanyolu TV (STV).
Also detained were staff including producer, director and scriptwriters on popular TV drama series Tek Turkiye (One Turkey) broadcast on STV.
Turkish television said that three people working for the TV series had been released overnight but 24 suspects were still being questioned by Istanbul police.
The state Anatolia news agency said chief public prosecutor Hadi Salihoglu ordered the arrests on charges of forgery, fabricating evidence and “forming a crime syndicate to overtake the sovereignty of the state”.
Several police were also detained, including Tufan Erguder and Mutlu Ekizoglu, former heads respectively of the Istanbul anti-terrorism and organised crime police departments.
In an unusually strong joint statement, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn condemned the raids as “incompatible with the freedom of media”.
“This operation goes against the European values and standards Turkey aspires to be part of and which are the core of reinforced relations,” they added.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington was “closely following” the developments.
“As Turkey’s friend and ally, we urge the Turkish authorities to ensure their actions do not violate these core values and Turkey’s own democratic foundations.”
US-based rights group Freedom House said the arrests were “a threat to free expression in Turkey and to anyone critical of its government.”
The Zaman newspaper itself headlined, “Black day for democracy,” in black fonts.
“Zaman will maintain its pro-democracy, pro-freedom and peaceful approach without any fear,” it said, warning that Turkey was being “dragged to a cliff”.
Thousands of journalists and supporters had gathered at the Zaman headquarters Sunday to give Dumanli a hero’s send-off as he was led away by plain clothes police.
There were also questions over the arrests of the team working on the “Tek Turkiye” drama which tells the story of an idealistic doctor who goes to work in the Kurdish-majority southeast.
Pro-government media said they were linked to a terror group but opposition media claimed one arrested was just a former intern whose name had been picked off the credits.