AUTOCRATS OFTEN feel compelled to invent pretexts, no matter how unconvincing, for crushing their opponents. In the latest round of attacks on the news media 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. Crowds thronged outside the newspaper headquarters in Istanbul when police arrived, and newspaper workers hoisted banners declaring that a “free press cannot be silenced.” All told, about two dozen people were detained, including journalists, producers, scriptwriters and a police chief in eastern Turkey. Eight journalists were released Friday, but others remain in custody.

They have all been swept up into the vortex of Mr. Erdogan’s paranoia about a Sunni cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Once an ally of Mr. 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 Mr. Erdogan to wipe out the influence that Mr. Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, still commands in Turkey.Mr. Erdogan appears to be hurtling toward the kind of autocracy evident today in Russia.

Mr. Erdogan declared two days before the arrests that he had uncovered evidence of a planned coup last year inspired by Mr. Gulen and his supporters. Mr. Erdogan talked darkly about a “parallel network that is commiting [sic] treason” and he has been threatening to root out the Gulen forces for much of this year. “We have gone into their lairs, and we will go into them again,” the Turkish president declared. In a related effort, an arrest warrant for Mr. Gulen was issued last week in Turkey.

The crisis was intensified by a corruption scandal that broke a year ago — again, Mr. Erdogan claims, inspired by his foes — that implicated many of those close to Mr. Erdogan, then prime minister. In the summer, he was elected president in the nation’s first popular vote for the office. Mr. Erdogan wants more power for the presidency, yet his bellicose behavior in the past year suggests he is taking Turkey in the wrong direction.

The rivalry with Mr. Gulen aside, Mr. 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 and not participating in a palace coup, but they rather are a critical part of a functioning, healthy political system. Suffocate the news media, and Mr. Erdogan risks destroying all that Turkey should aspire to. Mr. Erdogan ought to reverse direction before driving off the cliff.