Zaman newspaper: Protesters hit with rubber bullets and tear gas as government takeover continues

Journalists remaining at its offices have reportedly been told they must take toilet breaks alone as takeover continues

Turkish police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at thousands of protesters demonstrating against the government’s takeover of the country’s largest newspaper.

The Zaman media group’s offices were raided late on Friday night, breaking through a gate and storming the building before dragging out many of the journalists inside.

Demonstrators who gathered outside as outrage mounted over Turkey’s latest violation of press freedom were dispersed using water cannons and the scenes were repeated on Saturday as anger grew.

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A wounded protester being helped by her friends after Turkish riot police dispersed them during a protest outside of Zaman newspaper building, in Istanbul, Turkey, 05 March 2016.

Reuters news agency estimated that around 2,000 people gathered outside Zaman’s headquarters in Istanbul as administrators enacted a court order placing it under state control.

Footage showed tear gas and rubber bullets being fired at the crowd, while a photo being widely shared on social media showed a female protester with blood running down her face.

Zaman staff members have been chronicling the takeover of their newspaper on Twitter, with one calling it “the end of democracy” in Turkey.

“Internet connection gone,” Abdullah Ayasun wrote. “Passwords do not work, our access to system is blocked. That’s what happens when govt seizes a newspaper.”

He later posted a photo showing him backing up his desk, writing: “I can't stand seeing Zaman turns to gov't mouthpiece.”

Abdullah Bozkurt, another journalist for Zaman, said that its offices in Ankara had also lost access to internal servers and chronicled new rules enforced by “government caretakers”.

He alleged that staff were forbidden from going to the toilet in pairs or groups, writing that any bathroom breaks must now be taken alone.

Turkish police seize Zaman newspaper amid fierce protests

Earlier on Saturday, the trustees enacting the takeover had called staff in for a meeting reportedly announcing a “change in editorial policy” and firing editor Abdülhamit Bilici. 

“Humanity is under threat,” he wrote on Twitter, accusing the government of persecution.

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A plainclothes police officer kicks a demonstrator as Turkish anti-riot police officers disperse supporters in front of the headquarters of the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman in Istanbul on March 5, 2016

Today’s Zaman, the newspaper’s English language edition, said all content management systems had been blocked but vowed to continue reporting on social media.

Journalists said administrators were starting attempts to erase the papers’ entire news archive on both the internet and internal intranet.

Zaman had issued a defiant last independent edition on Saturday, saying Turkey’s press had experienced “one of the darkest days in its history”.

“The Constitution is suspended,” a headline on a black background read, according to a translation by the BBC.

Its English-language edition echoed its parent paper’s sentiment, writing online: “Shameful day for free press in Turkey.”

More than 1,200 people have so far signed a petition started by Index on Censorship condemning the seizure of Zaman and calling to “end Turkey’s crackdown on press freedom”.

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Men run as Turkish anti-riot police officers use tear gas to disperse supporters in front of the headquarters of the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman in Istanbul on March 5, 2016,

“We, the undersigned, ask the court to reverse its decision to seize Zaman and urge the international community to speak out against Turkey's repeated attempts to stifle a free and independent media,” said the petition, signed by prominent journalists including David Aaronovitch, Matthew Parris, Peter Kellner and Tony Gallagher.

Turkey ranks 149th among the 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index.

The group called President Erdogan “despotic” in a strong statement from secretary-general Christophe Deloire.

“It is absolutely illegitimate and intolerable that Erdoğan has used the judicial system to take control of a great newspaper in order to eliminate the Gülen community’s political base,” he said.

“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.”

The Turkish government accuses Zaman of supporting US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who was once an ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but is now held as a “terrorist” inciting a coup through his religious Gülen movement.

The newspaper, which has a daily readership of around 650,000, was taken over days after Turkey's Constitutional Court ordered the release of two Turkish journalists charged with revealing state secrets.

Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, from the Cumhuriyet newspaper, were arrested in November over a report alleging that the Turkish government had tried to ship arms to Islamists in Syria.

The pair still face possible life sentences at their trial on 25 March.

Two newspapers and two television channels were also put under state administration over their alleged links with the Gülen, or Hizmet, movement last year.

Additional reporting by agencies

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