Turkey criticised over arrests of anti-Erdogan media

The Turkish government on Monday faced accusations of eroding democracy and press freedoms after over two dozen people were arrested in raids against media critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The swoop on Sunday chiefly targeted a newspaper and television closely allied to the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a onetime close ally of Erdogan who has become his arch enemy.

Among a total of 27 people arrested in the nationwide raids were Ekrem Dumanli, the editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily newspaper which is closely linked to Gulen and Hidayet Karaca, the head of the pro-Gulen Samanyolu TV (STV).

Also detained were staff including producer, director and scriptwriters on popular TV drama series Tek Turkiye (One Turkey) broadcast on STV.

Turkish television said that three people working for the TV series had been released overnight but 24 suspects were still being questioned by Istanbul police.

The state Anatolia news agency said chief public prosecutor Hadi Salihoglu ordered the arrests on charges of forgery, fabricating evidence and "forming a crime syndicate to overtake the sovereignty of the state."

Several police were also detained, including Tufan Erguder and Mutlu Ekizoglu, former heads respectively of the Istanbul anti-terrorism and organised crime police departments.

In an unusually strong joint statement, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn condemned the raids as "incompatible with the freedom of media".

"This operation goes against the European values and standards Turkey aspires to be part of and which are the core of reinforced relations," they added.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington was "closely following" the developments.

"As Turkey's friend and ally, we urge the Turkish authorities to ensure their actions do not violate these core values and Turkey's own democratic foundations."

US-based rights group Freedom House said the arrests were "a threat to free expression in Turkey and to anyone critical of its government."

- 'Heavy blow to democracy' -

The Zaman newspaper itself headlined, "Black day for democracy," in black fonts.

"Zaman will maintain its pro-democracy, pro-freedom and peaceful approach without any fear," it said, warning that Turkey was being "dragged to a cliff".

Thousands of journalists and supporters had gathered at the Zaman headquarters Sunday to give Dumanli a hero's send-off as he was led away by plain clothes police.

There were also questions over the arrests of the team working on the "Tek Turkiye" drama which tells the story of an idealistic doctor who goes to work in the Kurdish-majority southeast.

Pro-government media said they were linked to a terror group but opposition media claimed one arrested was just a former intern whose name had been picked off the credits.

Commentator Abdulkadir Selvi in the pro-government Yeni Safak daily also criticised the arrests.

"I want to put it very clearly that the arrests of Ekrem Dumanli and Hidayet Karaca is wrong. I am objecting to the mistake, whoever made it," Selvi wrote.

His view contrasted with the newspaper's headline supporting the crackdown: "Time to give account".

Hurriyet daily columnist Ahmet Hakan said raiding newspaper offices and arresting journalists dealt a "heavy blow" to democracy and freedom of expression.

- 'Parallel state' -

But Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the Sabah daily that the suspects were detained "not because of their journalism activities."

"The details of the investigation will be clarified during the judicial process," Davutoglu said.

Erdogan has accused Gulen, who is based in Pennsylvania, of running a "parallel" state using influence in the police, judiciary, media and schools.

The Turkish government has repeatedly asked Washington to extradite Gulen, 73, but to no avail.

The crackdown came almost a year to the day after Erdogan's government was rocked by stunning corruption allegations that the authorities denied and blamed on Gulen.

The corruption probe -- opened on December 17, 2013 -- saw the arrests of dozens of leading businessmen and political figures close to Erdogan, then prime minister.

The last months have seen successive raids against suspected pro-Gulen elements in the police force, but this was the first time media had been so directly targeted. They also come ahead of June's legislative elections.

As in almost all previous raids the details of the swoop were leaked by a mysterious Twitter user named Fuat Avni, rumoured to be a government official, before it was even carried out.