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Turkey police fire plastic bullets at anti-Erdogan newspaper rally

March 5, 2016

Turkish riot police on Saturday fired plastic bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters who gathered outside an opposition newspaper the day after it was seized by authorities in a violent raid.

The swoop against the paper raised fresh concerns over declining media freedoms in Turkey, a key European Union ally, ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Brussels Monday for a crucial summit meeting with EU leaders.

“Free press cannot be silenced,” a group of demonstrators including the paper’s readers shouted outside the Istanbul premises of Zaman daily, staunchly opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Police used large amounts of tear gas, water cannon and plastic bullets to disperse around 500 people clapping in protest, an AFP photographer at the scene reported.

Before midnight on Friday, police also stepped in by using tear gas and water cannon to move away a hundreds-strong crowd that had formed outside the newspaper following a court order placing the media business under administration.

Turkey’s top-selling Zaman newspaper, closely linked to Erdogan’s arch-foe the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, was ordered into administration by the court on the request of Istanbul prosecutors, local media reported.

– ‘Internet cut off’ –

Zaman published a defiant edition Saturday warning of the “darkest days” in the history of the press.

“The Constitution is suspended,” it said on its front page in large font on a black background.

The newspaper, with an estimated circulation of 650,000, went to print earlier than usual on Friday evening and the number of its pages was reduced to 16 from 24, one of its journalists said.

Sevgi Akarcesme, the editor-in-chief of the paper’s English language edition Today’s Zaman, said on Twitter on Saturday that “All internet connection is cut off at the seized #zaman building by police raid.”

“We are not able to work anymore,” she wrote.

Before midnight Friday (2200 GMT), a team of police arrived with water cannon trucks and advanced military style towards the waiting supporters, firing freezing water directly at them.

Using bolt-cutters to unlock the iron gate in front of the building, dozens of police then marched into the premises to seize the headquarters and formally place it under administration, pushing aside anyone who stood in their way, media images showed.

Once the building was cleared, the court-appointed administrators — lawyers Tahsin Kaplan and Metin Ilhan and writer Sezai Sengonul — were bussed inside the complex to begin their work, local media reported.

EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said he was “extremely worried” by the move “which jeopardises progress” made by Turkey in other areas.

He warned on Twitter that Turkey, which is a long-standing candidate to join the EU, needs to “respect the freedom of the media” and rights were “not negotiable”.

– Moscow calls for probe –

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called for a probe by the international community including the Council of Europe into the latest media crackdown in Turkey.

“We hope our Western partners will put aside their fears of displeasing Ankara,” she said.

“It is essential that Ankara respect European and international requirements concerning freedom of speech and freedom of press.”

The United States said the court order was “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.”

“We urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold the universal democratic values enshrined in their own constitution, including freedom of speech and especially freedom of the press,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

Ankara accuses Gulen of running what it calls the Fethullahci Terror Organisation/Parallel State Structure (FeTO/PDY) and seeking to overthrow the legitimate Turkish authorities.

Local media said the court order was issued on the grounds that Zaman supported the activities of this “terror organisation”.

Gulen has been based in the United States since 1999 when he fled charges against him laid by the former secular authorities.

Despite living outside of Turkey, Gulen has built up huge influence in the country through allies in the police and judiciary, media and financial interests and a vast network of cramming schools.

There have been numerous legal crackdowns on structures linked to the group and on Friday Turkish police arrested four executives of one of the country’s largest conglomerates, accusing them of financing Gulen.

The effective seizure of the newspaper by the state added to concerns over freedom of expression in Turkey under Erdogan’s rule.

The daily Cumhuriyet newspaper’s editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul were released on an order from Turkey’s top court last week after three months in jail on charges of publishing state secrets.

But they still face trial on March 25.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.