Turkish ex-newspaperman discusses a declining free press

The destruction of the free press does not happen overnight — and it could happen anywhere, the former editor of a Turkish newspaper said Monday night during a visit to Dayton.

Abdulhamit Bilici — who left the Middle Eastern nation last year when his newspaper, Zaman, was shut down amid turmoil impacting free press — said press freedom is the “red line” to protect democracy.

“I now consider myself as witness and victim of a process at the end of which democracy has been hijacked and newspapers have been shut down and journalists jailed, and some of them have had to leave their country,” said Bilici, a political refugee. “It did not happen overnight.”

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The event, titled Freedom of Press and Democracy, was sponsored by the Dayton Council on World Affairs and Cox Media Group Ohio, the publisher of the Dayton Daily News. Ron Rollins, the newspaper’s Ideas & Voices editor, moderated the talk hosted at Cox’s South Main Street offices.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government labeled Bilici’s paper, among others, a terrorist organization. On March 4, 2016, troops stormed the building and took over the presses.

The newspaper’s final headline read, “Constitution suspended.”

“I was fired by the new managers of the company, who were appointed by the government, and they changed the editorial position of the newspaper in 24 hours,” said Bilici, who described the paper’s original editorial stance as “conservative-progressive,” or middle-of-the-road.

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“Whoever did not cooperate with the new administrators were fired from the newspaper,” he said.

Many reporters — 50 from his newspaper — were jailed. At least 81 journalists were imprisoned in Turkey as of Dec. 1, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Bilici said that while he sees some parallels in U.S. politics today, he believes the U.S.’s institutions and tradition of democracy are stronger.

He recommended all people listen to and respect political opponents, saying, “If you insult people who voted for Trump or others, you don’t help your cause.”

The event — and one earlier in the day at Sinclair Community College — was not without controversy.

Bilici is accused by supporters of Erdogan of sympathizing with Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999 and is accused of an attempted coup against Erdogan.

“What is his relationship with Fethullah Gulen?” said Islom Shakhbandarov, a local businessman and founder of the Ahiska Turkish American Community Center, after hearing Bilici’s address. “There’s many allegations here in Dayton about the schools they are running.”

In October, the Dayton Daily News reported Ohio-based Concept Schools Inc. manages 17 charter schools named Horizon Science Academies and Noble Academies — three of which are located in Dayton. Concept Schools was founded by a group of Turkish-American teachers linked to Gulen, and the organization denies accusations of impropriety.

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Staff Writers Chris Stewart, Josh Swiegart and Laura A. Bischoff contributed reporting.

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