TURKISH DICTATORSHIP SEIZES ZAMAN Journalists work with armed police standing over them

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EMPLOYEES working for Turkey’s Feza Media Group were allowed to enter the Zaman newspaper building in Istanbul at 8am Saturday after an ID check by police, who have been standing guard inside and outside the building since Friday night when trustees took control of the group.

‘This is how we, journos, are supposed to do our job. Under special ops standing guard, police inside #Zaman offices,’ Today’s Zaman Ankara representative Abdullah Bozkurt tweeted on Saturday morning with a photo showing police standing guard in the entrance of the building while holding his automatic rifle.

Police erected fences and were standing watch in front of the headquarters of Turkey’s largest-circulation newspaper, a day after they used tear gas and water cannons to storm the building and enforce a court-ordered seizure.

An Istanbul court appointed trustees over the Feza Media Group, which includes Zaman newspaper, Today’s Zaman and the Cihan News Agency on Friday amid increasing pressure on critical media groups by the government.

Reactions have mounted in Turkey against the government-orchestrated move as part of a crackdown on critical and independent media. Turkish police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse crowds protesting outside the headquarters of the opposition Zaman newspaper on Friday.

In the raid just before midnight, they moved in to secure the premises following a government decision to take over the management of the media group. This came after a day of standoffs between police and opposition protesters furious about a government crackdown on the free press.

Part of the crowd took cover inside of the building, as riot police moved in on protesters. After clearing their way through the crowd in front of the newspaper’s HQ, the officers pushed their way inside the building. ‘Throw him off the staircase!’ one of the officers allegedly shouted, as the raid squad pushed one of the publication’s employees down to the hall, according to a tweet written by a Zaman employee.

Zaman Editor-in-Chief Sevgi Akarcesme said that during the raid she was pushed by police as authorities tried to take her out of the building. ‘A police officer grabbed my phone forcefully while I was broadcasting on Periscope. I’ll sue him when the rule of law is back. Unbelievable!’ she tweeted. ‘This is beyond comprehension! Such a sad day in Turkey!’

The daily confirmed that police had gone to the management floor in the building, and were preventing editors from entering their offices. The journalists were shut out of their offices while police confiscated their cell phones, according to reports on social media.

The biggest opposition publication is being accused by the state of alleged links to America-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the Erdogan government accuses of attempting to topple the regime.

The decision by Istanbul 6th Criminal Court of Peace to de facto censor the publication was granted after the request of the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, that accused the publication of taking orders from what it called the ‘Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation/Parallel State Structure (FETO/PDY)’.

The prosecutor said that the alleged terrorist group is working together with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with the aim of toppling the Turkish government. To remedy the so-called ‘terrorist threat’, the court ruled to sack the entire management and the editorial team of Feza Media Group companies and to replace the entire group’s administration with a three-member board appointed by the state court.

Following the court ruling the newspaper editorial team released a statement through its English-language sister publication, Today’s Zaman. The statement said: ‘We are going through the darkest and gloomiest days in terms of freedom of the press, which is a major benchmark for democracy and the rule of law. Intellectuals, business people, celebrities, civil society organisations (CSOs), media organisations and journalists are being silenced via threats and blackmail.

‘We have entered the last phase in terms of pressure on those who persistently remain independent in their publications. Journalists are now frequenting courts, not their newsrooms. A significant proportion of the journalists who have been detained and faced lawsuits again and again are still in prison.

‘Cumhuriyet newspaper Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar and its Ankara representative Erdem Gül are the latest victims of this campaign. They were released following a ruling by the Constitutional Court after remaining in custody for three months. Yet, there are premonitions that could take the wind out of the sails of those who support democracy. Indeed, the courts came under heavy fire soon after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that he did not respect the decision and would not obey it. “They will be arrested again,” pro-government lobbies are parroting.

‘Two TV channels from the opposite ends of the political spectrum, Bengütürk TV and IMC TV, have recently been dropped from the state-run communications satellite Türksat. The same practice has previously been used to target TV channels from the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group and the Ipek Media Group. Dozens of TV channels have thereby been effectively silenced.

‘Another method for silencing the media is to appoint trustees to run media organisations. In the run-up to the parliamentary election of June 7, 2015, government caretakers were appointed to Bugün TV and Kanaltürk, which constituted two of the few independent media outlets in Turkey. The trustees made two newspapers and two TV channels go bankrupt a few days ago.

‘However, all national laws including the Constitution of the Turkish Republic and the international agreements that are binding upon us provide comprehensive guarantees for freedom of the press and with it, the right to access information. Article 26 of the Constitution safeguards freedom of expression and thought and Articles 28 and 30 advocate freedom of the press; both are very clear.

‘“A printing house and its annexes, duly established as a press enterprise under law, and press equipment shall not be seized, confiscated or barred from operation on the grounds of having been used in a crime,” reads Article 30, which also guarantees freedom of enterprise and investment. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is binding on Turkish courts.

‘Turkey’s highest circulating newspaper, Zaman, and its sister publication Today’s Zaman have come under serious pressure for more than two years, which has taken the form of accreditation bans, tax inspections, meddling with its advertisers and threats to its readers.

‘We have now been threatened with confiscation through the appointment of trustees. We are deeply concerned about all these developments that undermine Turkey’s democratic performance. We believe the only way out of this nightmarish atmosphere is to return to democracy and the rule of law. We are publishing our concerns to inform the Turkish nation, intellectuals who believe in democracy and the wider world.’

After the ruling, hundreds of people gathered outside the newspaper’s offices in Istanbul protesting against the move, before police fired tear gas at protesters as they stormed the head office building. Amnesty International has condemned the move to silence the opposition press.

‘By lashing out and seeking to rein in critical voices, President Erdogan’s government is steamrolling over human rights,’ said Andrew Gardner from Amnesty International’s Turkey. Even the Obama administration, while reaffirming Turkey’s crucial role as a NATO member and US ally in the region, had to concede that the Turkish government’s recent actions are not fully consistent with the spirit of ‘democracy’.

In a statement, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said: ‘We see this as the latest in the series of troubling judicial and law enforcement actions taken by the Turkish government targeting media outlets and others critical of it.’

He added: ‘We call on the Turkish government to ensure full respect for due process and equal treatment under the law. Court-ordered supervision of a media company’s finances and operations should not prompt changes to the newsroom or editorial policy.’