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Turkey detains editor, staff of leading opposition paper

Opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet was raided this morning and several senior staff members were arrested as part of what the government called a "terrorism probe" into some of its shareholders.
Supporters of Cumhuriyet newspaper, an opposition secularist daily, hold Monday's copies during a protest in front of its headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey, October 31, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer - RTX2R5SW

“An accelerated descent into dictatorship” was how one journalist summed up the Oct. 31 raid on Cumhuriyet, one of a handful of surviving opposition outlets, which saw its editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu detained along with several senior editors on alleged terror charges in Istanbul. 

Those arrested at dawn this morning included cartoonist Musa Kart, veteran columnist Aydin Engin, chief financial officer Gunseli Ozaltay and editorial board member and columnist Kadri Gursel, who also writes for Al-Monitor.

Government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus insisted that the detentions did not target the paper's editorial staff but were linked to a probe into some of its shareholders.

In Ankara, hundreds of people gathered outside the newspaper’s offices to protest the detentions, part of an ever-widening crackdown on alleged colluders in the July coup attempt.

“We stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the regime,” the crowds chanted.

We will not surrender,” the newspaper declared on its website.

The move triggered sharp rebukes from Turkish and Western politicians alike. The leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, accused the government of exploiting the July 15 coup attempt to mount a “counter-coup” of its own. Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, asserted in a tweet, “The detention of Murat Sabuncu and other Cumhuriyet journalists is yet another red-line crossed against freedom of expression in Turkey.”

But such talk is unlikely to faze Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who seems bent on suppressing all his opponents real and perceived as he bulldozes his path to what he calls a Turkish-style executive presidency and his critics call "one-man rule."

The climate of repression enveloping Turkey is such that many journalists were left airing their outrage over Cumhuriyet through private messages for fear of losing their jobs.

The raid on Cumhuriyet came a day after the government used its emergency powers to purge a further 9,000-odd civil servants, on top of the more than 100,000 already expelled. Another 14 mainly Kurdish media outlets were shut down, raising the total number of shuttered newspapers, journals, television channels, radio stations and online publications to nearly 200. At least 10,000 media workers are jobless and over 100 journalists are currently behind bars, more than in Russia, China and Iran combined. And these grim numbers seem destined to grow.

Under the new decrees, detainees on terror charges may be barred from access to their lawyers for up to six months if they are deemed to be pursuing criminal activities through their communications with them. All conversations between lawyers and detainees are to be recorded. The government says it’s working to reintroduce the death penalty, which would effectively kill Turkey’s languishing bid for full membership of the European Union. Meanwhile, the co-mayors of Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest Kurdish majority city, were arrested on Oct. 29, which marked Republic Day, on charges of promoting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Allegations that Cumhuriyet had in its coverage colluded with Fethullah Gulen, the Sunni Muslim cleric blamed for the coup attempt as well as with the PKK were greeted with derision. Turkey’s oldest newspaper, whose title means “Republic” in a nod to Turkey's founder and first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and its militantly secular readers, has been one of the fiercest critics of Gulen and his shadowy religious network for decades.

Its approach to the Kurdish problem has been more mixed, with a new generation of columnists like Gursel advocating greater rights for Turkey’s estimated 15 million Kurds. The old guard fiercely opposes peace talks with the PKK on the grounds that it would lead to Turkey’s dismemberment.

Many of Turkey’s leading journalists, including Sedat Ergin, the editor-in-chief of Turkey’s most influential newspaper, Hurriyet, cut their teeth as cub reporters at Cumhuriyet. Unlike its mass-circulation rivals, which seek to snare readers with photos of scantily clad women, Cumhuriyet espouses a determinedly highbrow tone. And just as unusually, it is not owned by a business conglomerate but by a constellation of shareholders, of which the largest is a foundation composed of the journalists themselves.

“Cumhuriyet is really the only major paper left standing that reports news, rather than simply reprinting talking points,” observed Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at The Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

Pressure has been growing on the newspaper since two of its leading columnists, Hikmet Cetinkaya and Ceyda Karan, defended the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo by illustrating their articles with its cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. In April, the two were sentenced to two years in prison for fomenting “hatred and enmity” and have faced a barrage of death threats. Cetinkaya, who has not yet began his sentence, was among those detained.

Last year, Can Dundar, the paper’s former editor-in-chief, was sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison for allegedly revealing state secrets.

Erdogan warned Dundar that he would pay “a heavy price” for the paper’s May 2015 report on a shipment of arms that were allegedly being funneled by the Turkish government to Syrian jihadists. Dundar, who together with his Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul spent three months in pre-trial detention, is living in exile in Germany. Dundar left after surviving an assassination attempt outside the courthouse where he was being tried.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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