ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish police forced their way into the offices of an opposition media company on Wednesday, days before an election, in a crackdown on companies linked to a U.S.-based cleric and foe of President Tayyip Erdogan.
Police fired pepper spray as they pushed their way through the front gates and used water cannon to disperse around 500 people who gathered in front of the offices of Kanalturk and Bugun TV in Istanbul to protest against the police action.
Erdogan hopes Sunday’s election will restore the overall majority lost in a June vote by the AK Party he founded. Polls, however, indicate it is unlikely it will secure such a victory, let alone the large majority needed to change the constitution and endow the presidency with the broad powers Erdogan seeks.
The media groups raided are owned by Koza Ipek Holding, which has links to Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen. The authorities on Tuesday took over 22 firms owned by Koza Ipek in an investigation of alleged financial irregularities, including suspicions it has funded Gulen, whom Erdogan terms a terrorist.
The company denies wrongdoing.
“This is a coup against opposition, against the media, against our existing constitution and against freedom of enterprise,” Abdulhamit Bilici, editor-in-chief of the Gulen-affiliated Zaman newspaper, told Reuters TV.
“Coups don’t happen only by tanks or by generals. Now we are witnessing a different coup under a civilian umbrella. This will not be acceptable for the Turkish people and this will not be acceptable for the international friends of Turkey.”
NATO member Turkey approaches elections amid renewed fighting between security forces and Kurdish insurgents as well as evidence of a spillover of turmoil from neighboring Syria. Over 100 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Ankara this month blamed on Islamic State.
But rising violence has not distracted Erdogan from the battle against Gulen who had helped him consolidate power in the early years of his government.
Erdogan clamped down on Gulen’s commercial interests after police and prosecutors considered sympathetic to the cleric opened a graft investigation of Erdogan’s inner circle in 2013. He has also purged police and judiciary.
As police arrived to ensure the entry of administrators to take over the companies on Wednesday, the crowd of protesters chanted “the free media cannot be silenced”.
“All I want is to be able to watch the channel I want when I get up in the morning, freely and in a democratic way. They are trying to silence it,” said Hesna Kekec, a headscarved housewife who came from the northwestern province of Kocaeli to protest.
Aydin Unal, an AK Party lawmaker and former Erdogan adviser, said on Tuesday legal action was planned against more opposition newspapers, including the nationalist Sozcu newspaper.
“Sozcu newspaper insults us every day,” Unal told A Haber channel.
“There is a lot of pressure on Turkey. If we say something, the world accuses us of interfering with the press, so we’re not in a comfortable position now, but after Nov. 1 we will settle up with all of them.”All opposition parties sharply criticized the seizure as an attack on media freedom.
“These repressive measures may seem to be directed at one media group but they target the whole of society,” Selahattin Demirtas, head of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) told reporters.
The Council of Europe also voiced concern.
“Raiding media outlets and taking over their assets just days before an election raises questions about media freedom,” said Daniel Holtgen, spokesperson of Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland.
A prosecutor is seeking a prison sentence of up to 34 years for Gulen, 74, on allegations he ran a “parallel” structure within state institutions that sought to topple Erdogan, who has led Turkey, first as prime minister, then president, since 2003.
Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, when he left the country amid growing pressure from a then strongly secularist political establishment.
A handful of prominent journalists who worked at Gulen-affiliated newspapers and TV stations are in pre-trial detention on similar charges.
Beyond his battle against Gulen, critics of Erdogan accuse him of increasing authoritarianism and of using the judiciary to crack down on rivals and opponents.
The mainstream Hurriyet news website said on Wednesday a court case had been opened in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir against two cousins, aged 12 and 13, who ripped down a poster of Erdogan from a billboard in the city.
Under the charge of “insulting the president” they face up to four years and eight months in prison, the paper said, adding the first hearing had been set for Dec. 8.
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley, Humeyra Pamuk and Melih Aslan; Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan and Nick Tattersall, Ralph Boulton