Leading UK journalists back campaign to reverse Turkish state take-over of leading opposition newspaper

Turkey's largest-circulation newspaper has adopted a more pro-government line in its first edition since a court ordered it to be seized.

Police stormed the headquarters of the Zaman opposition newspaper on Friday to enforce a court decision to place it and its sister outlets under the management of trustees.

The step sparked two days of protests which police dispersed using tear gas and water cannons.

The newspaper was linked to one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political opponents, the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Its take-over is part of a wider state crackdown on his movement.

The newspaper's top story today (the first after the take-over) described how Erdogan attended a ceremony marking a key phase in the construction of a bridge in Istanbul.

Police using tear gas and water cannons raided the headquarters of Zaman on Friday hours after a court placed it under the management of trustees.

Officers dispersed protesters who had gathered outside before entering the building to escort the court-appointed managers and evict newspaper workers.

The legal action came as the government has intensified a campaign against the Gulen movement which has been accused of attempting to bring down the government.

The case against Zaman was brought by a public prosecutor in Istanbul and meant the editorial board and management were replaced by people named by the court.

The move, which also affects Zaman's sister newspaper, English-language Today's Zaman, and a news agency linked to the group, further reduces the pool of opposition television and newspapers in the country, which is dominated by pro-government television channels and newspapers.

Zaman editor-in-chief Abdulhamit Bilici had addressed his colleagues in the grounds of the newspaper before police stormed the building, calling the court decision a "black day for democracy" in Turkey.

Today's Zaman chief editor, Sevgi Akarcesme, broadcast the police raid on Periscope before police confiscated her phone.

The court decision sparked international outrage.

"I see this as an extremely serious interference with media freedom which should have no place in a democratic society," said Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights.

"It is the latest in a string of unacceptable and undue restrictions of media freedom in Turkey."

Reporters without Borders accused Erdogan of "moving from authoritarianism to all-out despotism".

The government accuses the Gulen movement of orchestrating corruption allegations in December 2013 against ministers and people close to Erdogan as a plot to overthrow it.

The authorities have since branded the movement a terror organisation, although it is not known to have carried out acts of violence.

Gulen was placed on trial in absentia last year on charges of attempting to topple the government.

The government has cracked down on the movement since, purging civil servants suspected of ties to it, and businesses have been seized.

Index on Censorship said the seizure of the newspaper was the "latest in a spate of attacks on the free press by the government, which has arrested and detained scores of journalists over the past 12 months".

A petition urging the Turkish court to reverse the decision has been signed by leading British journalists including Tony Gallagher, Matthew Parris, Peter Oborne, Anthony Barnett, Ian Birrell and Kevin Maguire.

It states: "Today Turkey seized one of the country’s leading newspapers, Zaman. In so doing, Turkey has confirmed that it is no longer committed to a free press, which is the bedrock of any democratic society.

"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.”

The final edition of the paper before it was raided appeared on Saturday. The front page was black and carried the headline: "The Constitution is suspended."

It quoted Article 30 of the Constitution of Turkey: "A printing house, its annexes and press equipment duly established as a press enterprise under law shall not be seized, confiscated, or barred from operation on the grounds of being an instrument of crime."

The English-language edition echoed its sister paper with the headline: "Shameful day for free press in Turkey."

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