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Turkish Police Crack Down On Media Ahead Of Elections

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

With Turkey just a couple of days from parliamentary elections, police in Istanbul yesterday raided a media company that operates opposition television stations and newspapers. The company is called Koza Ipek. It's connected to an influential moderate Muslim cleric who broke with Turkey's Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a few years back. The police raid was denounced by critics as an effort to muzzle opposition voices. Emma Sinclair-Webb is the senior Human Rights Watch researcher for Turkey. She's in Istanbul and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

EMMA SINCLAIR-WEBB: Hello.

SIEGEL: And how significant was the police takeover of this media group, Koza Ipek?

SINCLAIR-WEBB: Well, yesterday morning, we saw scenes on TV which were absolutely extraordinary. The scenes were, to me, like the storming of a medieval castle. We saw police literally fighting their way through the gates, bringing in firefighters to cut away iron gates and forcing their way into the central control studio of the TV station and basically interfering with the broadcasts and finally taking the broadcasts off the air altogether, pulling the plug on the cameras on the live feed. It was one of the most dramatic television images you could possibly imagine actually showing the state of crackdown and intervention in the media these days in Turkey.

SIEGEL: What was the ostensible reason for doing this?

SINCLAIR-WEBB: Well, the ostensible reason was that the group was part of a huge conspiracy to overthrow the government and was part of an illegal terrorist organization.

SIEGEL: And the conspiracy would center around Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric who actually lives in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania and has a network of schools both in Turkey and in the U.S. as well. He's now accused of undermining the state and supporting terrorism.

SINCLAIR-WEBB: That's right. There is an investigation against this U.S.-based cleric, but there is nothing that we know about Fethullah Gulen that could be associated with a terrorist organization or a violent attempt to overthrow the government.

SIEGEL: Well, if a Turkish voter were following events from television and newspapers these days in Istanbul, would he or she get a fairly broad view of what's going on, or would it be narrowly filtered?

SINCLAIR-WEBB: Well, the majority of the TV stations are now either very much self-censoring or directly controlled by media groups that are government-controlled or government-influenced and therefore will not say anything against the government.

SIEGEL: The State Department was critical of what happened this week in Turkey and reminded Turkey of the need for a vocal opposition in a democracy. Turkey is an important U.S. ally. Turkey borders Syria, has taken in most of the Syrian refugees. Is president Erdogan using his position to ignore what's being said to him from the United States?

SINCLAIR-WEBB: Well, certainly, you know, the U.S. has issued repeated warnings about free speech in Turkey and the state of democracy, the importance of upholding the rule of law, and there is an incredible erosion of human rights and the rule of law in Turkey. So it appears that Erdogan is absolutely deaf to the kind of criticism he's receiving.

SIEGEL: That's Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher for Turkey speaking to us from Istanbul. Thank you very much.

SINCLAIR-WEBB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.