Turkish opposition media group seized

People stand in front of the headquarters of Turkish daily newspaper Zaman with placards reading "Free media are resisting" in Istanbul on March 4, 2016. An Istanbul court on Friday ordered into administration the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman that is sharply critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, amid growing alarm over freedom of expression in the country. / AFP / OZAN KOSEOZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

Thousands of Turks gather in Istanbul in protest at the court order placing Zaman newspaper under the control of trustees

Turkey has seized control of the country’s largest opposition news group, appointing trustees to replace the board of what the government says is the mouthpiece of an outlawed imam.

Details of a court order authorising the seizure of the Feza Media Group, reported by the semi-official Anadolu news agency, remained vague. Feza Media, which houses Zaman, other publications and the Cihan News Agency, had been under investigation for months over its ties to Fethullah Gulen, an ally turned adversary of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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Hadi Salihoglu, Istanbul’s chief prosecutor, whose office requested the order, declined to comment. In an earlier interview, he had defended the use of antiterrorism ordinances to investigate Feza Media’s financial ties to Mr Gulen, who has been stripped of his passport and lives in Pennsylvania in self-imposed exile.

The seizure is part of a two-pronged assault by Mr Erdogan’s government on supporters of Mr Gulen and on media outlets critical of government policies. Companies run by Gulen-affiliated businesspeople have been seized and their executives investigated for supporting the imam, who until 2013 was largely supportive of Mr Erdogan.

The pressure has been greater for media groups. A week before national elections in November, the government seized the assets of the Koza Ipek group, which ran two newspapers and a television channel critical of Mr Erdogan. The papers were stormed by riot police and converted overnight into pro-government publications, eventually losing the vast majority of their readership.

“What we were afraid of has now been realised,” said Bulent Kenes, a top editor at Today’s Zaman, the English-language sister paper to Zaman, the country’s largest daily, with a reported circulation of about 650,000. “This is a big blow against Turkish democracy.”

Andrew Gardner, an authority on Turkey with Amnesty International, said: “By lashing out and seeking to rein in critical voices, President Erdogan’s government is steamrollering over human rights.”

Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the authorities were using a legal figleaf, warning of “disgraceful, shameful, dark days in Turkey”.

The move came three days before a planned EU summit at which Ankara was hoping that its co-operation on the migrant crisis would lead to the opening of new chapters, including ones related to the judiciary, as it pursues EU membership.

A senior EU diplomat said the moves were typical of Turkey’s approach of helping Europe on migration, while expecting the EU to “shut up on the rest”. “The timing is a slap in the face,” the diplomat said, noting that the seizure came during a visit to Istanbul by Donald Tusk, the European Council president, and two days before Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is to see Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish premier.

Brussels and Ms Merkel have so far set aside concerns over growing authoritarianism in Turkey for fear of complicating a more pressing priority: winning Ankara’s support in reducing the flow of migration across the Aegean. In one closely watched move, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, watered down and delayed an EU review on the rule of law until after Turkey’s November general election.

After a constitutional court last week ended the pre-trial detention of the editors of Cumhuriyet, another newspaper, whom Mr Erdogan had personally sued on top of charges of leaking national secrets, the president declared he “neither respected nor accepted the court’s decision”.

Mr Erdogan’s conflict with the Gulenists goes back a long way, making the Zaman case another chapter in an extended campaign of silencing critics and exacting vengeance on a one-time ally. During many of Mr Erdogan’s early years in power the two groups were close allies.

The Turkish leader benefited when Gulenist supporters who had gained influence over the police and judiciary launched prosecutions, now largely discredited, of military officers and other mutual enemies of the two groups.

But when a corruption probe in late 2013 led by prosecutors loyal to Mr Gulen threatened to topple the government and tainted Mr Erdogan’s immediate family, the group’s newspapers coverage the allegations comprehensively, and have since been critical of many of his policies.

After tamping down the probe that he called an attempted coup by dismissing hundreds of prosecutors and thousands of police officers, Mr Erdogan has spent nearly two years assailing citizens and the owners of businesses loyal to Mr Gulen. Earlier on Friday, four executives at a privately owned conglomerate were detained under a similar investigation.

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