Turkish authorities seized control of the media company that owns the country’s best-selling Zaman newspaper, a one-time supporter of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that became one of his fiercest critics.
An Istanbul court appointed a trustee on Friday to oversee the company, Feza Gazetecilik AS, after a request from the prosecutor’s office, a state-run news agency reported without giving more details. The prosecutor’s office refused to comment on details of the seizure when reached by phone.
Police on Friday dispersed protesters who had gathered outside the Istanbul headquarters before breaking down a gate and entering the building to escort the court-appointed managers and evict newspaper workers. On Saturday, police erected fences and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters who again gathered outside the building.
The newspaper’s English-language Twitter account has continued to tweet updates about the raid and seizure throughout Saturday.
Zaman is published by followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan blamed for instigating a 2013 corruption probe into the Turkish government that he said was an attempt to overthrow him. The paper’s seizure comes amid a broader crackdown on media, which included the jailing of top editors Can Dundar and Erdem Gul of the Cumhuriyet newspaper for reporting on alleged Turkish arms shipments to Syria.
Erdogan has accused Gulen’s followers of infiltrating state institutions, including the police force and judiciary, and trying to overthrow him with fabricated charges of graft, supported by media operations under their influence. Management of an Islamic bank linked to the Gulen movement, Bank Asya, was also seized by the government last year.
Asya was once Turkey’s largest Islamic lender, but its market capitalization is about a fifth what it was before Gulen fell out with Erdogan in 2013.
‘Final free issue’
“We’ve just sent our final free issue to be published,” Sevgi Akarcesme, editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, the group’s English-language daily, said by phone from Istanbul on Friday. “Our headline is about us again, and that should give an idea about the kind of democracy in the country. There’s no rule of law left in Turkey.”
In its Friday edition, Zaman complained of intense pressure from the government over the past two years, saying that its staff weren’t allowed to cover state institutions and that the paper was under scrutiny by tax officials.
EU countries are preoccupied with their migration crisis, they are no longer concerned by rights violations in Turkey. They’ll say a few things… they are dependent on Turkey.”
— Semih Idiz, Turkish newspaper columnist
It also said that companies and individuals have been urged not to place ads in the newspaper. Supporters protested the government move outside Zaman’s headquarters in Istanbul’s Yenibosna district on Friday, according to pictures published on the paper’s website. “Zaman can’t be silenced,” read one banner.
Journalists and other newspaper workers held up signs that read: “Don’t touch my newspaper.”
The appointment of trustees has been used before by Turkey’s government to change the editorial tone of critical media. Four days before elections last November, trustees were appointed to manage the Koza-Ipek Group, another Gulen-linked company. Under new management, its newspapers and television channels went from being opposition media outlets to ruling-party mouthpieces more or less overnight.
Earlier this week, Koza-Ipek said in a filing to the Istanbul stock exchange that it was discontinuing media operations and terminating contracts with employees in those units.
Zaman’s average daily circulation during the week through Feb. 28 was nearly 648,000, about 300,000 higher than its nearest rival, Hurriyet, according to data compiled by media monitoring website Medyatava.
West reacts but is ‘preoccupied’
The U.S.-based watchdog, Freedom House, called on the European Union and the United States to speak out against the move. The EU, in particular, has been accused of keeping mute about human rights abuses and the deteriorating freedoms in Turkey because of the country’s crucial role in curtailing the flow of migrants to Europe.
“The appointment of trustees to run Zaman amounts to a government takeover of a private media outlet, and is a flagrant violation of both rule of law and freedom of the press,” said Daniel Calingaert, Freedom House executive vice president.
“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 Cumhuriyet and Daily Hurriyet newspapers. “They’ll say a few things as a matter of form, but they know they are dependent on Turkey.”
Bloomberg and Associated Press
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