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Seized Turkish Newspaper Transformed Overnight Into Pro-Government Mouthpiece

The Sunday edition of Turkey’s largest daily newspaper minimized the government takeover of the publication while touting a bridge project in Istanbul.

by Tess Owen
Mar 6 2016, 4:30pm

Photo by Deniz Toprak/EPA

Nothing about Sunday morning was business as usual for the editors and reporters at Zaman, Turkey's largest daily newspaper, who navigated to work through crowds of angry protesters and rows of heavily-armed police in riot gear outside their offices in Istanbul.

The newspaper and the media company that owns it were seized on Friday by the Turkish government, and the publication, which has a circulation of nearly 1 million, had a conspicuously pro-government slant in its Sunday edition. A picture of President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan was splashed across the front page with a headline that touted "historic excitement" about the completion of a new bridge project.

The government takeover of Zaman and the ensuing clashes between police and protesters, which made international headlines, received only a brief summary and was dwarfed by the large pictures of Erdogan. The takeover, widely condemned as yet another blow to press freedom in Turkey, was described in the Sunday edition as being part of "an independent judicial process" that had nothing to do with politics.

The front page of the Sunday edition of Zaman after the paper was seized by Turkish authorities. The main headline touts "historic excitement" about the completion of a new bridge project in Istanbul.

Mustafa Edib Yilmaz, who has worked as the paper's foreign editor since 2009, wasn't surprised when he saw Sunday's copy. On Saturday, Yilmaz and his colleagues arrived at work to discover the internet had been cut off and their official email accounts had been disabled. The paper's English-language Twitter account was deleted on Sunday.

"It's 2016, so it's nearly impossible to prepare a newspaper without the internet," Yilmaz told VICE News. "We were told to wait, but we didn't know for what, or until when. We got no answer."

It's unclear who put together this Sunday's pro-government edition. At the request of Istanbul's Chief Public Prosecutor's Office, Zaman's editor-in-chief Abdülhamit Bilici was fired on Saturday and replaced with state trustees. Yilmaz said he asked one of the newly appointed administrators how they should prepare Sunday's newspaper copy without internet access.

Related: Turkey Fires Top Editor of Country's Largest Newspaper as Media Crackdown Continues

"They said, "Don't worry, we got a plan B,"" he recalled. "I wasn't allowed to further inquire. I only suspect there was work preparing the newspaper outside the building by someone else."

In response to the takeover, a group of former Zaman employees have put together a new newspaper called Yarina Bakis.

Turkish NBA basketball player Enes Kanter tweeted a picture of Yarina Bakis, a paper created by a group of former Zaman employees.

On Friday, a court ruled that the Feza Media Group, which owns Zaman,Today's Zaman and the Cihan News Agency, should no longer be allowed to operate independently due to its alleged alliance with groups deemed to be terrorist organization by the Turkish government, including the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which is currently battling Turkish forces in the country's southeast.

Yilmaz said some members of staff are worried that such allegations could lead to their arrest. "We have all been accused of being involved in a terrorist operation, of conspiring with the PKK," he said. "I have been called a traitor, a puppet of foreign powers about a thousand times over two years, and now it's official. There's a court document using terminology that accuses us of being terrorists, circulating in social media, in print media.

Related: Turkey Detains 21 'Academics for Peace' for Anti-Violence Petition

"It's scary," he added, "especially when you have a family, to face such a consequence."

After the court's ruling on Friday, Turkish authorities stormed the headquarters of the Feza Media Group and seized control of the company's administrative center. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the large crowd of protesters that gathered outside.

Yilmaz said he and his colleagues stayed in the office until 2am on Friday until they were forced out by police.

Tweet by Mustafa Edib Yilmaz, the foreign editor at Zaman.

In a televised interview, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the takeover was "legal, not political," and that it was "out of the question for either me or any of my colleagues to interfere in this process."

Protests over the government's crackdown intensified on Sunday. Around 2,000 people gathered outside the offices, many shouting "Free press cannot be silenced." A female journalist was tear gassed while reporting live on Periscope.

Friday's decision to take control of Zaman came just hours after police detained prominent businessmen over allegations of financing what prosecutors described as a "Gülenist Terror Group." Zaman is said to have a close relationship to the "Gülen movement" or "Hizmet," a social and religious movement led by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar who currently resides in the United States in self-imposed exile. Gülen is on Turkey's list of most-wanted terrorists.

Erdogan accuses Gülen of conspiring to overthrow the government by building a network of supporters in the judiciary, police, and media. Gülen denies the charges. The two men were allies until police and prosecutors seen as sympathetic to Gülen opened a corruption probe into Erdogan's inner circle in 2013.

Related: Istanbul's 'Little Syria' Provides a Home Away from Home for Syrian Refugees

Amnesty International published a damning report on the state of press freedom in Turkey last year, noting that "unprecedented steps were taken to silence media linked to investigations of the "Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization." In the report, Amnesty reeled off an exhaustive list of channels that were forced to go silent, newspapers that were shuttered, and journalists who were detained over the course of just one year.

"By lashing out and seeking to rein in critical voices, President Erdogan's government is steamrolling over human rights," Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey expert, said in response to the latest crackdown.

According to Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index in 2015, Turkey ranked 149 among 180 countries listed. The US State Department condemned Friday's takeover of Feza Media Group as "the latest in a series of troubling judicial and law enforcement actions taken by the Turkish government."

Erdogan has insisted that Turkey's press remains free. "Nowhere in the world is the press freer than it is in Turkey," he said previously. "I'm very sure of myself when I say this."

On Saturday, in an op-ed on the website for Today's Zaman, the publication's editorial staff wrote, "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, businesspeople, celebrities, civil society organizations (CSOs), media organizations and journalists are being silenced via threats and blackmail."

In spite of such threats, Yilmaz said he won't stop speaking out against the actions of the Turkish government. "If everyone goes silent, they would be achieving their ultimate goal," he said. "Whatever the consequences are, I'll be there on Sunday and Monday. I can't let anyone down. We will be peaceful, we will be journalists."

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen

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