Istanbul / AFP
Turkish authorities were on Saturday in control of a newspaper staunchly opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after using tear gas and water cannon to seize its headquarters in a dramatic raid that raised fresh alarm over declining media freedoms.
Police fired the tear gas and water cannon just before midnight on Friday at a hundreds-strong crowd that had formed outside the headquarters of the Zaman daily in Istanbul following a court order issued earlier in the day, an AFP photographer said.
The swoop caused immediate concern in Washington and Brussels amid the intensifying worries over the climate for freedom of expression in Turkey. EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said he was “extremely worried”.
Zaman, closely linked to Erdogan’s arch-foe, the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, was ordered into administration by the court on the request of Istanbul prosecutors, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.
Hundreds of supporters then gathered outside its headquarters awaiting the arrival of bailiffs and security forces after the court order.
“Democracy will continue and free media will not be silent,” Zaman’s editor-in-chief Abdulhamit Bilici was quoted as saying by the Cihan news agency just before the police raid.
“I believe that free media will continue even if we have to write on the walls. I don’t think it is possible to silence media in the digital age,” he told Cihan, part of the Zaman media group.
‘Series of troubling actions’
Shortly before midnight, a team of police arrived with two Turkish-made TOMA water cannon trucks used by the police and exported to several countries.
They advanced military style towards the waiting supporters, firing the freezing water directly at them.
Using bolt-cutters to unlock the iron gate in front of the building, dozens of police then marched into the premises to seize the headquarters and formally place it under administration, pushing aside anyone who stood in their way, Cihan images showed.
Once the building was cleared, the court-appointed administrators—lawyers Tahsin Kaplan and Metin Ilhan and writer Sezai Sengonul—were bussed inside the complex to begin their work, Anatolia said.
The Cihan news agency and the Today’s Zaman English language daily—which are also part of the Feza Publications group that owns Zaman —and are also affected by the court order.
The United States, said the court order it was “the latest in a series of troubling judicial and law enforcement actions taken by the Turkish government targeting media outlets and others critical of it.”
“We urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold the universal democratic values enshrined in their own constitution, including freedom of speech and especially freedom of the press,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
Hahn said he was “extremely worried” about the move “which jeopardises progress” made by Turkey in other areas.
He warned on Twitter that Turkey, which is a long-standing candidate to join the European Union, needs to “respect the freedom of the media” and rights were “not negotiable”.
‘Just before EU summit’
Gulen has been based in the United States since 1999 when he fled charges against him laid by the former secular authorities.
Despite living outside of Turkey, Gulen built up huge influence in the country through allies in the police and judiciary, media and financial interests and a vast network of cramming schools.
Ankara now accuses Gulen of running what it calls the Fethullahaci Terror Organisation/Parallel State Structure (FeTO/PDY) and seeking to overthrow the legitimate Turkish authorities.
Anatolia said the court order was issued on the grounds that Zaman supported the activities of this “terror organisation”.
There have been numerous legal crackdowns on structures linked to the group and on Friday Turkish police arrested four executives of one of the country’s largest conglomerates, accusing them of financing Gulen.
Gulen supporters decry the accusations as ridiculous, saying all he leads is a more informal group known as Hizmet (Service).
The effective seizure of the newspaper by the state added to concerns over freedom of expression in Turkey under Erdogan’s rule.
The daily Cumhuriyet newspaper’s editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul were released on an order from Turkey’s top court last week after three months in jail on charges of publishing state secrets.
But they still face trial on March 25.
Meanwhile almost 2,000 journalists, bloggers and ordinary citizens, including high school students, have found themselves prosecuted on accusations of insulting Erdogan.
Independent pro-Kurdish television channel IMV TV was taken off air in Turkey last weekend following accusations that it broadcast “terrorist propaganda” for militants.
The raid on Zaman comes as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu heads to Brussels on Monday for a crucial summit meeting with EU leaders. The news of the court decision broke as Erdogan was holding talks in Istanbul with EU President Donald Tusk.