November 17, 2014 / 2:28 PM / in 3 years

Turkish media linked to exiled cleric say they shut out by government

Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania September 24, 2013.Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily via Cihan News Agency

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish media close to a U.S.-based Islamic preacher accused by President Tayyip Erdogan of seeking to usurp power say they have been shut out of government press events in a move they see as evidence of Turkey's deteriorating press freedoms.

Correspondents from the Zaman and Bugun newspapers, the Samanyolu TV station and Cihan news agency say they have been banned from the presidential palace since Erdogan's inauguration in August and no longer receive official press releases.

Erdogan, whose ruling AK Party has roots in political Islam, accuses preacher Fethullah Gulen of building a "parallel state" of followers in institutions including the police and judiciary in a bid to seize the levers of state power.

Erdogan says Gulen orchestrated a corruption scandal against his inner circle last year in an attempted "judicial coup", a charge Gulen denies, and has described the preacher's "Hizmet" (Service) network as a threat to national security.

The media ban was extended to key ministries including the prime minister's office and the ministry of foreign affairs a few days after a National Security Council meeting last month, according to journalists from Gulen-linked media outlets.

"This is a war, a fight, an effort to wipe out Hizmet," said Tercan Ali Basturk of the Gulen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation, seeing the ban as "punishment" for their news organizations' coverage of the corruption probe.

The foreign ministry declined to comment but government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, defended the move.

"The priority of some press institutions is not journalism but serving their political agenda ... There are journalists who criticize the government and are still covering it, but the Gulenists had a particular agenda," one official said.

Erdogan's domination of the media, much of it owned by conglomerates with business ties to the AK Party, has pushed Turkey, which is a candidate for membership of the European Union, towards the bottom of global press freedom rankings.

In its October report on Turkey's progress towards accession, the European Commission raised concerns about press freedom in Turkey and called on the government to "promote dialogue across the political spectrum".

It also chastised Turkey for interfering in the judiciary following the corruption probe.

FORMER ALLIES

Gulen's network helped cement Erdogan's rise, aiding him to curb the power of a military that saw itself as the guardian of the secular state and toppled four governments in the second half of the 20th century.

Its influence in the judiciary was seen as key to the jailing of generals and politicians as the ruling party clamped down on its secularist opponents.

Prominent journalists, including Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, were also detained for their work critical of Gulen's life and influence, prompting an outcry over freedom of the press.

The marriage of convenience between Erdogan and Gulen has since fallen apart as the former allies turned on each other in a power struggle that burst into the open with last December's corruption scandal.

"The government is using the same methods the military used in the past ... The only thing that has changed are the oppressors and the oppressed. Power has changed hands, but the old limitations on freedom have not," Basturk said.

Erdogan has sought to purge the judiciary and police of Gulen's influence in the wake of the corruption scandal and has repeatedly called for the cleric's extradition to Turkey.

The rift has extended to businesses linked to the cleric, most notably Islamic lender Bank Asya, whose shares slumped after state-owned firms and institutions withdrew deposits earlier this year amid what its chief executive has called a "smear campaign".

Erdogan has denied trying to sink the bank.

Cihan's general director Abdulhamit Bilici said the media ban was damaging the news agency's business and threatened legal action.

"It's financial discrimination," he told Reuters, comparing the situation to restrictions imposed after a 1997 military coup. "We were on the blacklist then when it was a military coup. Now we're having the same from a civilian organization."

Additional reporting by Seda Sezer and Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul, Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Giles Elgood

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