The Turkish government raided two opposition newspapers this week, forcing them off the stands on Thursday before having them re-emerge on Friday with a pro-government slant and an image of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the cover, with the latest press crackdown happening just 48 hours before Turkey heads to the polls for parliamentary elections.
Friday's front page for the MIllet and Bugun newspapers with Erdogan on the cover were in line with the other cover stories and designs of pro-government media outlets, complete with articles favoring the president.
The latest government suppression against media outlets in Turkey started on Wednesday when police raided their offices in Istanbul, taking the television stations operated by Bugun and Millet off the air.
Police fired pepper spray as they pushed their way through the front gates of Bugun TV's offices and used water cannons to disperse hundreds of people gathered in front to protest against the police action. 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."
On Thursday morning, their daily newspapers were nowhere to be found on newsstands and Millet responded by posting the planned front page on Twitter — led by a story with the headline "A Bloody Putsch" and a blood-stained media card. A government-designated trustee was reportedly placed in Bugun's police-filled newsroom, according to Bloomberg.
Then on Friday morning the papers were back on newsstands, this time with a pro-government slant. Bugun editor-in-chief Erhan Basyurt told Bloomberg he would attempt to access the outlet's offices on Friday.
"This is an operation meant to silence free media," Basyurt said. "It's obvious from today's front page and other stories in Bugun that the paper is confiscated."
The media groups raided are owned by Koza Ipek Holding, which has links to US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, accused by Erdogan of trying to topple him. The authorities took over 22 firms owned by Koza Ipek on Tuesday in an investigation of alleged financial irregularities, including suspicions it has funded Gulen, whom Erdogan terms a terrorist. The company denies wrongdoing. Authorities said the media raids were part of the investigation.
"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. "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."
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.
While the government claimed the recent media raids were part of the Koza Ipek Holding investigation, others have called the move part of a larger crackdown on the press. Alp Aslandogan, the head of a New York-based Turkish opposition organization Alliance for Shared Values, told Reuters the latest incident was simply part of a larger trend towards authoritarian rule by Erdogan.
According to him, the timing before Sunday's elections was likely an attempt to show what could happen to other media outlets that attempt to criticize the leader, while limiting the number of outlets that could report on election results.
"Many journalists, media outlets who have nothing to do with the Gulen movement or Mr. Gulen have been subjugated and have been targeted by criminal prosecutions, by harassment, by threats and physical attacks and vandalism of their buildings," he said. "So it is very clear that this issue, what the country is facing is not about two men, it is about Turkish democracy."