Autocrats often feel compelled to invent pretexts for crushing their opponents. In Turkey, warrants were issued for the arrest of journalists in which it was stated they are suspected of nefarious deeds, such as plotting “to seize state power” or forming an armed organization to support terrorists. These trumped-up claims are intended to divert attention from a crackdown by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his critics and rivals. At stake is Turkey’s democracy.

On Dec. 14, Turkish police arrested the editor of the daily Zaman newspaper, the head of the Samanyolu broadcasting group and others. All told, about two dozen people were detained. Eight journalists were released Friday, but others remain in custody.

They have all been swept up into the vortex of Erdogan’s paranoia about a Sunni cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Once an ally of Erdogan, he is now branded by the president as a foe bent on toppling him from power. The journalists’ arrests are just the most recent attempt by Erdogan to wipe out the influence that Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, still commands in Turkey.

Erdogan declared two days before the arrests that he had uncovered evidence of a planned coup last year inspired by Gulen and his supporters. The Turkish president also has been threatening to root out the Gulen forces for much of this year. In a related effort, an arrest warrant for Gulen was issued last week in Turkey.

The rivalry with Gulen aside, Erdogan ignores a central premise of democracy: that it is strengthened, not weakened, by competition. The noisy news media are not carrying out some dark conspiracy, but they rather are a critical part of a functioning, healthy political system. Suffocate the news media, and Erdogan risks destroying all that Turkey should aspire to.