Zaman newspaper reopens under government control, heavy police guard

Zaman newspaper, a mass-circulation opposition media outlet which has been taken over by the government, reopened Saturday under heavy police guard and with the editor-in-chief removed from his post.

Staff took to social media to post photos of armed special forces inside the building and also guarding the barricaded perimeter after police raided the offices. Abdulhamit Bilici, the editor, left the building to the applause of staff.

Police used tear gas and water cannons and forced their way into the newspaper's offices on Friday night. They detained and handcuffed a German journalist covering the event, but he was released after several hours.

Fresh rounds of tear gas were fired Saturday at supporters who were demonstrating outside the building, decrying what they see as a crackdown on press freedoms in a country were civil rights are under pressure and critics of the government are facing blowback.

Staff members were calling the Saturday morning paper the "last edition," before the government-appointed leadership took over. The front page was black with the words "The Constitution is Suspended."

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was sharply critical of the Constitutional Court this week, saying he would neither "obey nor respect" a ruling which ordered the release of two jailed opposition journalists from a leftist newspaper. The reporters still face terrorism charges.

"We see this as 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," US State Department spokesman John Kirby said after the raids on the newspaper.

Kirby called on the NATO-member state to "uphold the universal democratic values enshrined in their own constitution, including freedom of speech and especially freedom of the press."

The Turkish edition of the newspaper, Zaman said, had a daily circulation of 850,000 print copies, making it the largest opposition paper in the country.

Zaman, which also has an English-language paper, is seen as being affiliated with the movement of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher based in the US.

Gulen was a one-time ally of Erdogan but the two fell out in recent years and the government has pushed the line that the preacher's movement, known as Hizmet (Service), is a terrorist group.

He is accused of running a "parallel" state within the civil service and trying to overthrow the government.

Staff at the paper said the government's charges appeared focused on the relationship with Gulen and allegations of collaboration with the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). In the past, one reporter noted, the Gulenists were accused of being anti-Kurdish.

The state-run Anadolu news agency reported a court had ordered a state-appointed trusteeship to take over Zaman, though no reason was given in the report.

Zaman is the latest media outlet to face the strong arm of the government, after authorities took over other critical media outlets, including newspaper and television stations allegedly affiliated with Gulen. Leftist media houses are also facing restrictions.

Amnesty International and press freedom groups were sharply critical of the takeover of Zaman. Human Rights Watch said this is the "latest attempt by Turkey's president and government to silence critical media."

In addition to the crackdown on media, there have also been moves to silence people accused of "insulting" Erodogan. The Justice Ministry this week confirmed some 1,850 criminal investigations have been opened into citizens who were critical of the president.

Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2003, first as prime minister and since 2014 as president, insists Turkey has the freest media in the world.

Last update: Sat, 05/03/2016 - 18:48

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