A leading Turkish newspaper which had staunchly opposed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan printed yesterday (6 March) its first new edition since its seizure by authorities, strongly supporting the government.
Turkish police on Friday (4 March) raided the Istanbul premises of the Zaman newspaper using tear gas and water cannon to enter the building in order to impose a court order placing the media business under administration.
The front page of the paper, normally strongly critical of the president, was full of articles supporting the government on Sunday.
Zaman headlined an ambitious three billion dollar government project to connect Asian and European sides of Turkey’s mega city Istanbul by a third bridge.
In common with traditionally pro-government newspapers, the front page also contained images of the funerals of “martyrs” killed in the military clashes with Kurdish rebels in the southeast.
In one corner of the new edition, Erdogan is seen holding the hand of an elderly woman and the newspaper announces the president is due to host a reception for women on women’s day.
With an estimated circulation of 650,000, the newspaper has been closely affiliated with Erdogan’s enemy, exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, believed to be wielding significant influence in the police and judiciary, as well as media and financial interests.
Ankara accuses Gülen of running what it calls the Fethullahist Terror Organisation/Parallel State Structure (FeTO/PDY) and seeking to overthrow the Turkish government.
In its last edition that went to print before its takeover, the newspaper warned of the “darkest days” in the history of the Turkish press, and on Saturday (5 March) police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse a group of the paper’s supporters who were clapping in protest.
The new administration, appointed by the court order, on Saturday cancelled the contract of the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Abdulhamit Bilici, while newspaper employees entered the building under tight police scrutiny.
Sunday’s edition was the first issue after the takeover, which critics said was aimed at eradicating opposition media in Turkey, which hopes to join the European Union.
“Internet has been cut off, we are unable to use our system,” one of the newspaper’s journalists told AFP.
“The Sunday edition was not produced by Zaman’s staff,” the journalist said.
The seizure of the newspaper by the state comes ahead of a critical summit on Monday between Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and EU leaders in Brussels.
The EU has urged Turkey, its key ally in tackling the huge migrant crisis facing the continent, to uphold press freedom.
The President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz who attends the first part of EU summits tweeted that he would raise the issue of the seizure of Zaman with the EU heads of state and government.
The Turkish government, for its part, has denied any interference in what it termed a “legal process”.
“There are many media outlets in Turkey that criticise our government. None of them are subjected to legal procedures,” Davutoğlu told A Haber television on Sunday.
“But what’s in question here is not merely a press activity but rather an operation targeting a legitimate government that came to power with popular support,” he said referring to Gülen loyalists.
Gülen has been based in the United States since 1999 when he fled charges against him laid by the former secular authorities.
Turkey has asked the United States to extradite him, but Washington has shown little interest in doing so.
Davutoğlu said talks with the United States were under way “within the frame of international law” for Gülen’s extradition.
“I hope we will obtain a result as soon as possible,” he said.
ALDE Member of European Parliament Marietje Schaake (Netherlands) called for a debate with the European Commission about the appalling human rights violations in Turkey.
"Since Commissioner Timmermans shook hands with President Erdoğan to close the deal on asylum and migration, he has been silent about the situation in the country despite major problems. Meanwhile President Erdoğan states he will neither obey nor respect the Constitutional Court, which called for the release of two imprisoned journalists. Enough is enough."
"It is unacceptable that European leaders look to Turkey to outsource their own problems in dealing with refugees from Syria. Turkey won't solve Europe's problems, such expectations are unrealistic. Yet, the price of credibility and principles has been paid. Principles such as respect for the rule of law and human rights are non negotiable. The European Parliament must explicitly speak out against these violations, and should ask for a statement of the European Commission. If the domestic situation in Turkey continues down this path, it will destabilize, and Timmermans' deal with fly back like a boomerang in Europe's face."