Police dressed in riot gear seized the headquarters of Turkey’s highest-circulation newspaper in a midnight raid Saturday, in arguably the biggest blow yet to press freedom in President Recep Erdogan’s Turkey.
The government takeover of Today’s Zaman was evidently in response to Erdogan’s perception of the paper as a front for the Gülen movement — a social movement led by the Turkish scholar and preacher Fethullah Gülen that is openly critical of Erdogan’s government.
Reporters Without Borders’ security-general Christophe Deloire released a scathing statement about the takeover, calling the operation “ideological and unlawful.”
“Erdoğan is now moving from authoritarianism to all-out despotism,” Deloire wrote. “Not content with throwing journalists in prison for ‘supporting terrorism’ or having them sentenced to pay heavy fines for ‘insulting the ‘head of state,’ he is now going further by taking control of Turkey’s biggest opposition newspaper.”
Many Zaman journalists and spectators were live-tweeting the takeover.
— Abdullah Bozkurt (@abdbozkurt) March 5, 2016
Turkish police force Zaman’s editor-in-chief out of the building. pic.twitter.com/Y47xd06HaL
— Mahir Zeynalov (@MahirZeynalov) March 5, 2016
The seizure of Zaman was quite rough. I got handcuffed by the anti terror police and then arrested for four hours with the normal police.
— Frank Nordhausen (@NordhausenFrank) March 5, 2016
Three trustees, all openly supportive of Erdogan, were reportedly appointed to manage the paper. Turkish police continue to occupy Zaman’s headquarters, and the building’s Internet connection has apparently been cut off.
In a statement, State Department Spokesman John Kirby called the takeover “troubling.”
It is not the first time Today’s Zaman has been targeted. Zaman editor in chief Ekrem Dumanlı was arrested in December 2014 on charges of forming and leading a terrorist organisation, but he was released five days later.
Sevgi Akarcesme, an Istanbul-based reporter for Zaman, was put on trial in August after Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a member of the ruling AKP party, sued her for “insulting” him on Twitter. Akarcesme later tweeted that the indictment included “insults” that were not even her own.
“This morning I had an hearing in the court because Turkish PM Davutoglu sued me over a comment left under my tweet! Yes, somebody else’s…” she wrote.
Akarcesme had tweeted that “Davutoğlu, the prime minister of the government that covered up the corruption investigation, has eliminated press freedom in Turkey.”
Erdogan has led a forceful crackdown on the Gülen movement since at least 2013, accusing its supporters of running a “parallel structure” to his government and arresting journalists and publications deemed sympathetic to its cause.
“Erdogan has turned Turkey’s regulatory institutions into censorship and sanctions bodies,” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote last July.
The highly publicized arrest of Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of leading Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, was widely condemned. Both he and Cumhuriyet’s
Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül, were detained after Cumhuriyet reported that a weapons shipment had been seized at the Turkish border, presumably bound for rebels in Syria.
A Turkish constitutional court ruled in late February that the journalists’ rights had been violated, and they were released after three months in jail.
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