By Abdülhamit Bilici

(originally published in Miami Herald on July 25, 2017)

Hidayet Karaca, one of 258 jailed journalists in Turkey, was the top executive editor of a leading Turkish media network Samanyolu, with 14 TV channels, dozens of radio stations and popular news portals. For years he defended the rule of law and democracy against anti-democratic circles.

One of his most important priorities was supporting Turkey’s membership in European Union. While encouraging dialogue among different perspectives and religions, his channels had a tough line against terror of all kinds. As a result, Karaca constantly received death threats. When the critical media came under immense pressure from authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Karaca’s media network had become a vital platform for all voices in the opposition.

No more. Those TV channels no longer exist. Karaca no longer is a media executive. Because of his editorial policy against Erdogan’s corruption and authoritarianism, his television channels were shut down, and more than 1,000 journalists lost their jobs. Karaca has been jailed since 2014.

Some may think that Erdogan started to silence critical media only after failed coup on July 15, 2016. But this is not true. Like many other journalists, Karaca became target long before the coup attempt as the president declared a war on free media against the background of massive corruption investigations in which he, his son, and senior government officials were incriminated in 2013.

Since then, Erdogan has resorted to all sorts of intimidation tactics to muzzle the media and cover up a scandal involving Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who allegedly helped funnel billions of dollars’ worth of gold into Iran — in violation of U.S. sanctions — by bribing Turkish officials. Facing well-documented corruption claims, Erdogan had two options: Accept courts’ investigations or getting rid of an independent judiciary and free media to cover up the scandal. He chose the latter.

Samanyolu TV Network was at the top of his enemy list. First, Erdogan tried to force the network into bankruptcy by intimidating advertisers. Then regulatory bodies, dominated by Erdogan loyalists, blatantly abused their power to levy financial penalties. Next, Erdogan canceled press cards of Samanyolu journalists, blocking them from attending official press conferences.

On Dec. 14, 2014, police raided media outlets and detained dozens, including Karaca. The prosecutor, citing an episode that was aired five years ago as part of a now-discontinued fictional TV series, a soap opera, detained not only Karaca but also the series’ producer, director, and scriptwriters, as well as even an assistant who only worked as an intern. Soon it became clear that whole investigation was based on a complaint filed by a senior leader of a Turkish pro-al Qaida group, who claimed the fictional episode smeared his name.

It was no coincidence that Karaca was tried by a judge who did not hide his affection and praise for Erdogan.

Media professionals’ 2014 detention, including that of Ekrem Dumanli, the then editor-in-chief of Zaman daily, coincided with the anniversary of the corruption investigations that the government wanted to sweep under the rug.

Erdogan called the corruption investigation a coup and he blamed Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim scholar living in Pennsylvania.

In court, Karaca asked the judge to explain what terrorist organization he supposedly belonged to and where his guns and ammunition were. The judge could not respond. But he put Karaca in jail pending trial.

The European Parliament condemned the Turkish government’s attempt to silence media. In a letter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry, 89 members of the U.S. Congress voiced deep concern.

Meanwhile Karaca’s lawyers appealed the absurd case to higher courts. One accepted the fact that the accusations were silly and released Karaca, along with the jailed police officers who started corruption investigation. But in a further blow to rule of law in Turkey, instead of releasing Karaca, the Erdogan regime dismissed and then arrested those judges. Karaca now has been in jail for almost three years, together with judges who decided to release him.

As an exiled journalist myself, I highlight Karaca’s story to underline the dire situation of both press freedom and rule of law in Erdogan’s Turkey, where 200 media outlets critical of his regime have been shut down in past two years. More than 7,000 academics have been fired, 3,000 judges and prosecutors arrested, more than 100.000 public officers purged because of their political views.

All these things have happened not in China, Iran or Russia, but in Turkey, a NATO member, an American ally, and part of many European organizations that are founded on the principle of democracy.

ABDULHAMIT BILICI IS THE FORMER EDITOR IN CHIEF OF ZAMAN NEWSPAPER IN TURKEY.