Turkey: A Journalist Deported
In late December, days after Turkish prosecutors launched an investigation into corruption, which included influential businessmen and government officials, Turkish Airlines stopped offering copies of Zaman newspaper and its English-language counterpart, Today’s Zaman, on their flights. The newspapers are owned by Feza Media Group, which is affiliated with Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Turkish Islamic cleric who Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused of orchestrating the corruption probe in an attempt to dismantle his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Gulen is at the head of a large, worldwide network of followers, many of whom, after a generation of education within the Gulenist system, have emerged prominent, confident and well-connected. What those followers — most of whom refer to the group as the “Hizmet” (service) movement — would themselves explain as the natural distribution of ambitious and educated people within the Turkish government, judiciary and security forces, Erdogan has labeled a “parallel state.” The Zaman papers — once, like Gulen himself, supportive of Erdogan and the AKP — quickly became enemy propaganda.
The Zaman offices are a mirrored box by Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. From an adjacent park, lunching reporters can watch Turkish Airlines flights take off, one after another, their red tails slicing through wispy clouds on their way to an ever-growing list of destinations, Zaman newspapers-free. Last Friday, Mahir Zeynalov, a Today’s Zaman journalist, arrived at the same airport, with his wife and some luggage to turn himself over to the police. In December, Erdogan filed a lawsuit against Zeynalov for two tweets — one related to the corruption probe and another to Al-Qaeda in Turkey — which the prime minister deemed offensive and false. A few weeks later, for the tweets, the journalist was deported. The authorities also pointed out that Zeynalov had not yet received a new government-issued press card, which he had easily acquired in previous years, but this was widely viewed as an excuse. Deportation procedure requires waiting at home for a police escort, and because Zeynalov and his wife went to the airport by themselves, he had to pay a fine before leaving.
I visited the Today’s Zaman office a few days after Zeynalov was deported to meet with Celil Sagir, one of the paper’s managing editors. When Sagir arrived in the glass-walled meeting room, he was waving a piece of paper in exasperated triumph. It was a faxed photocopy of Zeynalov’s renewed press card. In his other hand, Sagir carried a copy of the day’s newspaper, which had been chronicling Zeynalov’s deportation in detail; the paper has been running updates on Zeynalov under the headline “Storm of Blatant Lies” on the front page, above the fold. “We encourage other newspapers to cover this issue because it is a press freedom issue,” he told me. As for the photocopied press card, he said, “This will be our next story.”