Tuesday 27 September 2016

Desperate EU turns a blind eye to Turkey's attacks on media

Laura Pitel in Istanbul

Published 09/03/2016 | 02:30

A woman bleeds from an injury after riot police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse people gathered in support, outside the headquarters of Zaman newspaper in Istanbul
A woman bleeds from an injury after riot police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse people gathered in support, outside the headquarters of Zaman newspaper in Istanbul

As the EU's top official arrived in Istanbul last week to lay the ground for this week's migration summit, Turkish authorities were busy seizing control of the country's best-selling newspaper.

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Brussels had already made clear that it was willing to turn a blind eye to concerns about growing authoritarianism in Turkey in return for its help in stemming the flow of people to Europe. But the timing of Friday's takeover at Zaman media group could not have been more embarrassing.

Shortly after Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, shook hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, protesters outside the Zaman offices were blasted with tear gas. Journalists said they were prisoners in their own newsroom after police set up camp in the building.

The paper is closely linked to an Islamic cleric who was once the government's ally but is now a foe accused of plotting a coup. Turkey has insisted that the takeover was a judicial decision backed by a court order, not a political one.

That is hard to take seriously after seeing yesterday's edition. Having in recent years become one of Turkey's most critical news outlets, it suddenly performed a 180-degree turn. The front page was one giant puff for the government, with "stories" about the president visiting a new bridge and hosting a reception for women. It would be funny were it not so dark.

The seizure is the latest in a series of assaults not just on the media but also on the judiciary, academia and civil society. Once held up as a model Muslim democracy, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now increasingly seen in Western capitals as a runaway train.

There has been little pushback, however, from leaders in Brussels, Berlin and Paris. They fear that the migration crisis poses an existential threat to EU freedom of movement - and have hit on Turkey as the solution.

Ankara is well aware of its power. A leaked memo of a previous meeting between Brussels officials and Mr Erdogan revealed that they held back a critical EU report until after an important election.

When European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker protested that Mr Erdogan was being treated "as a prince", he shot back that he expected nothing less.

So it is not surprising to learn that, following the torrid events at Zaman on Friday, the EU issued the mildest of rebukes.

Refugees

For all its kowtowing, it is not even clear that Europe's deal with Turkey will succeed in avoiding a repeat of last year's tide of arrivals in Europe.

Turkey is already home to three million refugees. Many are determined to head to Greece and are willing to take the financial and personal risks needed to get there.

EU officials believe that Ankara has come around to the idea of accepting migrants turned away from Europe - a move aimed at deterring others from even trying.

But Turkey has said that it will be impossible to completely halt the tide.

Its foreign ministry warned last week: "There's no magic wand in our hands." (© Independent News Service)

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