Turkish Police Clash With Protesters Outside Newspaper Seized by Government

A state administrator was appointed to run the daily newspaper Zaman, Turkey's largest-circulation newspaper; the EU is pressured to take stance over erosion of media freedom.

A group of women, as Turkish anti-riot police officers use tear gas to disperse demonstrators outside the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman, Istanbul, March 5, 2016.
AFP

Turkish police fired tear gas and plastic pellets on Saturday to disperse some 2,000 protesters gathered outside the country's biggest newspaper after the authorities seized control of it. 

Hundreds of the paper's supporters staged a second-day of protests outside the building, now surrounded by police fences. They chanted "free press cannot be silenced" and "Zaman cannot be silenced" as riot police used shields and tear gas to push the crowd, sending protesters running into side streets for protection. Some were seen rubbing their faces with pieces of lemon to mitigate the effect of the tear gas, the private Dogan news agency reported. A number of protesters were hurt, the agency added.

A court on Friday appointed a state administrator to run the flagship Zaman paper and the English-language Today's Zaman, affiliated with a U.S.-based cleric the government accuses of plotting a coup.

The decision was taken at the request of a prosecutor investigating the religious movement on terrorism charges, state media said. 

Turkish anti riot police officers launch water cannon and tear gas to disperse supporters of the Zaman Daily newspaper on March 4, 2016 in Istanbul.
AFP
A woman cries as Turkish anti-riot police officers disperse supporters in front of the headquarters of the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman in Istanbul, March 5, 2016.
AFP

Police raided Zaman at midnight, firing tear gas and water cannon and forcibly breaking a gate to enter the offices, live web footage showed. 

The seizure of Zaman, Turkey's largest-circulation newspaper, and its sister outlets Friday has escalated fears over media freedom in Turkey. It is part of a wider government campaign against businesses linked to a movement led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen that the government claims is attempting to topple it.

The English-language Today's Zaman Saturday edition, published before the forced take-over, printed its entire front page in black with the headline: "Shameful day for free press in Turkey."

'The European Union cannot remain silent to the political seizure'

Men run as Turkish anti-riot police officers use tear gas to disperse supporters outside the daily newspaper Zaman in Istanbul, March 5, 2016.
AFP
A police officer bends down near a woman crying in the street as Turkish anti-riot police officers use tear gas to disperse protesters, Istanbul, March 5, 2016.
AFP

Meanwhile, the European Union is facing increasing pressure to speak out against the erosion of media freedom in Turkey, but few expect it to take a bold stance toward Ankara while trying to assure its help in dealing with the migration crisis.

The Istanbul court's appointment of trustees to manage Zaman and its sister outlets further reduced the number of opposition media organizations in Turkey, which is dominated by pro-government news outlets and where censorship is rife. It raised alarm bells over the deterioration of rights conditions in the NATO member nation, which also aspires for EU membership, just days before a March 7 meeting, in which EU leaders will try to convince Turkey to do more to curtail the flow of migrants traveling to Europe.

"The EU countries are preoccupied with their migration crisis, they are no longer concerned by rights violations in Turkey," said Semih Idiz, columnist for the opposition Cumhuriyet and independent Daily Hurriyet newspapers. "They'll say a few things as a matter of form, but they know they are dependent on Turkey."

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, was once Erdogan's ally. Over the past years, the government has purged civil servants allegedly linked to the movement and seized businesses affiliated to it. The movement has also been branded a terror organization although it is not known to have carried out any acts of violence.

Rights advocacy groups accuse EU nations of keeping mute about deteriorating freedoms and human rights abuses in Turkey — including the large civilian death toll during military operations against Kurdish militants — because of the country's crucial role in curtailing the flow of migrants to Europe.

During a visit to Turkey this week European Council President Donald Tusk spoke of the "good and growing cooperation" between Turkey and the EU.

"The European Union and the United States, as Turkey's partners and allies, should not trade Turkey's support on migration and Syria for silence over the dismantling of democratic institutions," said Daniel Calingaert, executive vice president of the U.S.-based watchdog, Freedom House, following Zaman's take-over.

The European Federation of Journalists said: "The European Union cannot remain silent to the political seizure of Zaman newspaper, Today's Zaman daily and Cihan news agency."