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Turkish journalists 'prisoners in our own newsroom' after raid

Zaman journalist says only a matter of time before staff are fired, after police raid offices of newspaper suspected of aiding 'terror group'
Turkish riot police clash with supporters at Zaman daily newspaper headquarters in Istanbul (AFP)

Journalists at the Turkish Zaman newspaper have reported turning up to work on Saturday to find their office swarming with police, after officers launched a late-night raid to take the building and business over.

“We're now prisoners in our newsrooms under heavy police presence inside Zaman building,” said journalist Abdullah Bozkurt on Twitter.

The paper was raided on Friday under the suspicion that it was acting on orders from the “Fethullahist terror organisation,” a group headed by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, an ally-turned-enemy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On Friday, trustees were appointed by the government to take over Feza Media Group, which includes the Zaman newspaper, the English-language Today’s Zaman and the Cihan News Agency.

Bozkurt, who works for Today's Zaman, told Middle East Eye that his company accounts, including email, had already been closed down without explanation.

About 500 supporters of the newspaper demonstrated outside the offices on Saturday and were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons from the police, while employees chanted “the free press cannot be silenced”.

Speaking to Middle East Eye from the Zaman offices, Mustafa Edib Yilmaz, the paper’s foreign news editor, said police had set up barriers and were checking everyone entering or leaving.

“People are only allowed in after they give their IDs, their names are noted down,” he said.

“I don’t know what is awaiting us in the next few hours, if there will be a newspaper at all for tomorrow, or what it will look like if there will be any. That is pretty much uncertain.”

The US on Friday described the raid as “troubling”.

"We see this as 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," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

Erdogan has long maintained that Zaman is part of a wider Gulenist network seeking to undermine the Turkish state. The Hizmet movement, as the Gulenist following is referred to, has proved very influential, with membership thought be numbering in the millions and with more than 1,000 private schools in over 180 countries.

Hizmet has long portrayed itself as a liberal reforming Islamic movement, opening up interfaith dialogues, promoting women's rights, secularism and multi-party democracy and advocating the study of natural sciences.

Zaman’s links with Gulen have never been a secret, with the preacher maintaining a regular column in the newspaper.

“Zaman has been the leading critical newspaper, with a 650,000 daily print circulation, it is by far the leader of the print newspaper market, and it is also able to connect with the supporters of the ruling party, so whatever it has to tell the people, it has the potential to have an impact on people’s political choices,” said Yilmaz.

“So it has always been a threatening presence among newspapers. They [the government] have always wanted to take over this newspaper, and I guess there has always been some sort of cost-benefit calculation all the time. This could have happened a year ago, two years ago.

“The reason that I think it didn’t happen earlier is because they now thought the timing was right to go about this seizure.”

Fuat Avni, an anonymous source thought to be based inside the Turkish government, reported on Twitter on Thursday of an upcoming raid on Zaman, saying it was a response to the constitutional court’s decision to release two Cumhuriyet journalists who were being prosecuted for publishing video footage purporting to show Turkish trucks delivering aid to Syrian rebels.

According to the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper - which denounced Zaman as a "Gulenist mouthpiece" on Friday - Gulenists have been involved in infiltrating the "police, judiciary and bureaucracy involved in a set of crimes ranging from illegal wiretapping and orchestrating sham trials to imprison the movement's critics".

The paper said that "no reason was given" for the decision to appoint trustees to takeover Zaman, but said that it was generally "a way to thwart the activities of corporate entities accused of involvement in crimes".

A number of other media outlets have been subjected to similar methods, including Koza Ipek holding, which owns Bugun TV and Kanalturk TV, both of which have been seen as critical of the goverment.

Both channels were closed down on February 29.

Yilmaz said he did not think he would be working at Zaman for long. "All the editors, all the journalists, we are all waiting for our letters of exclusion to be delivered to us. I guess it is only a matter of time.”