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Turkey issues arrest warrants for 47 former Zaman journalists

Former staffer tells MEE that arrest threats against journalists at pro-Gulen newspaper have 'nothing to do with battling the coup or terrorism'
Zaman was taken over by the government in March (AFP)

Arrest warrants have been issued for 47 former employees of the Zaman newspaper, a Turkish newspaper known to have strong links to the Gulenist movement.

The journalists were removed from post earlier in the year when the government seized control of the pro-Gulen newspaper accusing it of being part of a "terror organisation".

A Turkish official said that while the arrests were not linked to anything individual journalists or columnists might have written, they were "likely to have intimate knowledge of the Gulen network and as such could benefit the investigation”.

He added the arrests include "executives and some staff including columnists".

However Abdullah Bozkurt, a former Ankara bureau chief for Today's Zaman, told Middle East Eye that the arrests were about censoring journalism and had "nothing to do with battling the coup or terrorism".

Bozkurt, who added he left Turkey on Tuesday after facing death threats, said he had been close to many of those now threatened with arrest.

"The most troublesome thing for me is to see young journalists who covered police, judiciary, defence matters now being arrested," he said, via email.

Bozkurt told MEE that many of those targeted had only recently begun working at the paper. "These are junior reporters who have started on their path in journalism career, yet they were fired without severance pay or compensation after unlawful seizure of their media groups by the government.

"Now they are being detained for simply doing their jobs."

According to the Haber Turk newspaper, among those threatened with arrest are Sevgi Akarcesme, former editor-in-chief of the English-language Today's Zaman; former Zaman editor-in-chief Abdulhamit Bilici; and columnist Bulent Kenes, who had previously been arrested on charges of "insulting" the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

More than 13,000 people have been arrested in a crackdown in response to the 15 July coup attempt in Turkey, which the government blames on US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Organisations with links to Gulen have been heavily targeted.

Zaman was raided by police in March over accusations of being linked to what the government describes as the "Fethullahist terror organisation".

Trustees were appointed by the government to take over Feza Media Group, which includes the Zaman newspaper, Today’s Zaman and the Cihan News Agency. Many staff members were fired.

Following the takeover, the newspaper took a staunchly pro-government line and sales of the daily - previously the best-selling newspaper in the country - collapsed.

Though Zaman's readership was largely the same people who were responsible for electing the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) into power, the paper had been heavily critical of the government's actions and the coverage had long angered Erdogan.

The paper's links to the Gulenist movement were always open - the cleric, an ally-turned-enemy of Erdogan, had even written a regular column for Zaman.

On Tuesday, Gulen urged in The New York Times for the US to resist calls by the Turkish government to have him extradited to Turkey over the coup attempt.

"Throughout my life, I have publicly and privately denounced military interventions in domestic politics," he wrote.

"The temptation to give Mr Erdogan whatever he wants is understandable. But the United States must resist."

On Wednesday, however, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he had the "strongest expectation" that Gulen would be extradited by the US.

Washington has previously said it would need evidence of the cleric's involvement in the coup attempt.

The Zaman arrests come after authorities on Monday issued another 42 arrest warrants for journalists, including prominent veteran reporters.

London-based rights group Amnesty International said that the arrests represented a "draconian clampdown on freedom of expression".

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