On 4 March, a court ruled that Turkey’s largest newspaper Zaman should be run by a state administrator. Outside the building the police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators protesting against the forceful takeover of the newspaper. The demonstrators used phrases like: “Free press cannot be silenced” and "Hands off my newspaper".
Opponents of the government
Zaman was linked to US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s most influential opponent. He used to be Erdogan’s ally, but differences emerged over foreign policy and a government plan to shut schools run by Gulen's followers. Now the government calls his Hizmet movement a terrorist group and accuses him of building a network of supporters in the judiciary, police and media and plotting a coup against the president.
The takeover of Zaman comes at a time when press freedom in Turkey is already at stake. Two prominent journalists from the pro-opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper are facing potential life sentences on charges of endangering state security for publishing material showing intelligence officials trucking arms to Syria. Authorities have previously seized and shut down other opposition media outlets associated with the Gulen movement. The state deposit insurance fund said this week that an Islamic bank founded by Gulen followers might be liquidated within months as well.
Reactions in Turkey
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the government played no part in a court decision to appoint administrators to the newspaper. He said: “I made remarks on this yesterday. It is completely a legal process. No one should have hesitation about press freedom in Turkey”.
According to Abdulhamit Bilici, editor in chief of Zaman, "It has been a habit for the last three, four years, that anyone who is speaking against government policies is facing either court cases or prison, or such control by the government.” The editor and chief columnist were both fired on the same day.
Johannes Hahn, the European Enlargement Commissioner, said he is “Extremely worried about latest developments on Zaman newspaper which jeopardises progress made by Turkey in other areas. As a candidate country Turkey needs to respect freedom of media.” European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, Katy Piri, said in a tweet: "Zaman Media Group being silenced in Turkey. Crackdown on press freedom continues sadly".
Turkey was declared eligible to join the EU in 1997 and started accession negotiations in 2005, but the ongoing dispute over Cyprus and other human rights issues have repeatedly delayed talks. However, the refugee crisis and the rise of Isis amid the explosion of conflicts in Syria and Iraq have made Turkey a crucial partner to the EU as a frontline against terrorists and millions of displaced people. But critics have accused Europe of turning a blind eye to Turkey’s abuses of human rights as they attempt to stem the flow of refugees by funding money into the country.
On 6 March, the first edition of the Zaman newspaper was published after being seized by the government. The articles, normally strongly critical of Erdogan, were now mainly supporting the Turkish president.
On the Zaman website a message was published: “"We will provide you, our readers, with a better quality and more objective service as soon as possible." The English website of Zaman has not been updated since 5 March, the day after the seizure.