ISTANBUL (AFP) - A leading Turkish newspaper opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and seized by authorities warned of the “darkest days” in the history of the press in a defiant edition Saturday as police used rubber bullets to disperse a new protest.
The late-night swoop against the Zaman newspaper raised fresh concerns over declining media freedoms in Turkey, a key European Union ally, ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Brussels Monday for a crucial summit meeting with EU leaders.
Zaman, closely linked to Erdogan’s arch-foe, the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, was placed on Friday under administration after a court order which critics said was another attempt to silence opposition media.
“The Constitution is suspended,” the newspaper, which managed to print its latest issue despite the takeover, said on its front page in large font on a black background.
“Yesterday (Friday) marked one of the darkest days in the history of Turkish press,” it said.
Turkish riot police on Saturday fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse a new protest by the newspaper’s supporters outside its Istanbul headquarters.
“Free press cannot be silenced,” a group of demonstrators shouted.
Police used large amounts of tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse around 500 people, an AFP photographer at the scene reported.
Zaman, with an estimated circulation of 650,000, went to print earlier than usual on Friday evening before the police raid and the number of its pages was reduced to 16 from 24, one of its journalists said.
Sevgi Akarcesme, the editor-in-chief of the paper’s English language edition Today’s Zaman, said on Twitter on Saturday that the raided building had had all Internet connections cut.
“We are not able to work anymore,” she wrote.
During Friday’s raid, police first cleared protesters with tear gas and water cannon, then used bolt-cutters to open the gates before dozens of officers marched in to take over the building and formally place it under administration, media images showed.
Once the building was cleared, court-appointed administrators were bussed inside the complex to begin their work, local media reported.
The new administrators on Saturday fired Zaman’s editor-in-chief Abdulhamit Bilici, press reports said.
The raid prompted a worried response from the European Union, which urged Ankara to respect media freedom.
“The EU has repeatedly stressed that Turkey, as (an EU) candidate country, needs to respect and promote high democratic standards and practices, including freedom of the media,” the EU’s diplomatic service said in a statement.
The Russian foreign ministry called for a probe by the international community including the Council of Europe into the crackdown.
“It is essential that Ankara respect European and international requirements concerning freedom of speech and freedom of press,” a ministry spokeswoman said.
Washington also urged Turkey to protect freedom of speech, saying the court order 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.”
Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch, called the court order “a veiled move by the president to eradicate opposition media and scrutiny of government policies.”
Ankara accuses Gulen of running what it calls the Fethullahci Terror Organisation/Parallel State Structure (FeTO/PDY) and seeking to overthrow the legitimate Turkish authorities.
Local media said the court order was issued on the grounds that Zaman supported the activities of this “terror organisation”.
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 has 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.
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.
The Zaman seizure is the latest incident to raise concerns about 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.