IZMIT, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Monday defended weekend raids on media outlets close to a U.S.-based Muslim cleric as a necessary response to “dirty operations” by the government’s political enemies, and told a critical European Union to mind its own business.
Sunday’s raids on the Zaman daily and Samanyolu television marked an escalation in Erdogan’s battle with former ally Fethullah Gulen. The two have been in open conflict since a corruption probe targeting Erdogan’s inner circle a year ago, which Erdogan blamed on Gulen.
He accuses the cleric of establishing a ‘parallel’ structure in the state through his supporters in the judiciary, police and other institutions, and of wielding influence through the media. Gulen denies any ambition to overthrow Erdogan.
“They cry press freedom, but (the raids) have nothing to do with it,” Erdogan said, speaking at the opening of an extension to an oil refinery near Istanbul.
“We have no concern about what the EU might say, whether the EU accepts us as members or not, we have no such concern. Please keep your wisdom to yourself,” he said.
The European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join, said the media raids ran counter to European values. EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn described them as “not really an invitation to move further forward” with Turkey.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who met with Erdogan just a week ago during one of the highest-ranking EU visits to Turkey in years, said she was “very surprised” by his reaction so soon after “constructive” talks with his government.
German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s spokesman said it was “in Turkey’s own interest to clear up any possible doubt over its commitment to basic democratic principles” following the raids, in which 24 people including top executives and former police chiefs were detained.
Thousands of police officers and hundreds of judges and prosecutors suspected of loyalty to Gulen have been reassigned since the corruption scandal, which led to the resignation of three government ministers, emerged almost exactly a year ago.
Erdogan signaled the purges could continue, saying the judiciary and some other state institutions, including the state scientific agency Tubitak, must still be “cleansed of traitors”.
Hundreds of civil servants, including police officers, prosecutors and Tubitak scientists, have been purged as tensions with Gulen escalated.
Erdogan’s comments sent the Turkish lira, already suffering in an emerging markets sell-off, to a record low of 2.3905 against the dollar.
“I wonder if we will look back and see this day as the final death of Turkey’s EU accession bid,” said Timothy Ash, head of emerging markets research at Standard Bank in London.
Erdogan, whose AK Party was elected in 2002, introduced many democratic reforms in his first years in power and curbed army involvement in politics. NATO allies often cited Turkey as an example of a successful Muslim democracy, but more recently critics have accused Erdogan of intolerance of dissent and, increasingly, a divisive reversion to Islamist roots.
He has cast the battle against Gulen’s “Hizmet” (service) network as a continuation of Turkey’s “normalisation”, a struggle to root out anti-democratic forces, and said on Monday that Turkey’s democratic standards were rising.
“This process is the planting of the seeds of the new Turkey,” he said.
“Those who try to get involved in dirty business and dirty relations with the hope of returning Turkey to its old days are getting the necessary response, and will continue to get it.”
Istanbul Chief Prosecutor Hadi Salihoglu said on Sunday arrest warrants had been issued for 31 people on charges of “establishing a terrorist group”, forgery and slander.
Two former police chiefs, Samanyolu’s chairman and the staff of two Samanyolu drama series, one about an anti-terrorism squad and the other set in a southeast hit by Kurdish rebellion, were among those detained.
Asked whether he expected “sabotage” from Gulen allies ahead of a parliamentary election next June, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the pro-government Sabah newspaper on Monday that the state had to “take precautions”.
“This is not an investigation into journalistic activities,” he was quoted as saying, and more details would emerge as the legal process took its course.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition CHP who has described the raids as a “coup against democracy”, questioned their legality.
“These operations are not carried out within the frame of the law. These are operations based on revenge,” he told reporters.
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley and Ece Toksabay in Istanbul, Adrian Croft in Brussels, Alexandra Hudson in Berlin; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Giles Elgood