Istanbul - Turkey's top-selling Zaman newspaper published a defiant edition Saturday warning of the “darkest days” in the history of the press after authorities seized control of its headquarters in a dramatic late-night raid by riot police.
The swoop against the paper, staunchly opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, caused immediate concern in Washington and Brussels over declining media freedoms in Turkey, a key EU ally.
It came ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Brussels Monday for a crucial summit meeting with EU leaders,
Police fired tear gas and water cannon just before midnight Friday at a hundreds-strong crowd that had formed outside the headquarters of the Zaman daily in Istanbul following a court order issued earlier in the day, an AFP photographer said.
Zaman, 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, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.
“The Constitution is suspended,” the newspaper, which managed to print its latest issue after the violent takeover, said on its front page in large font on a black background.
“The Turkish press has experienced one of the darkest days in its history,” it added.
“Turkey's mass circulation newspaper was seized despite Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's assurance that 'free press is our redline.'“
Shortly before midnight (2200 GMT), a team of police arrived with two Turkish-made TOMA water cannon trucks, which are used by the police and exported to several countries.
They advanced military style towards the waiting supporters, firing the 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, Anatolia said.
EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said he was “extremely worried” about 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 European Union, needs to “respect the freedom of the media” and rights were “not negotiable”.
The president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz tweeted the seizure was “yet another blow to press freedom in Turkey” and said he planned to raise the issue on Monday.
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.
The newspaper's employees began their job on Saturday morning under tight police scrutiny, the AFP photographer reported. The employees formed queues at the entrance for identity control.
A crowd of around 150 supporters gathered outside the building, holding the newspaper's latest issue in a show of solidarity.
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.
Anatolia 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 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.
Gulen supporters decry the accusations as ridiculous, saying all he leads is a more informal group known as Hizmet (Service).
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.
Meanwhile almost 2 000 journalists, bloggers and ordinary citizens, including high school students, have found themselves prosecuted on accusations of insulting Erdogan.
Independent pro-Kurdish television channel IMC TV was taken off air in Turkey last weekend following accusations that it broadcast “terrorist propaganda” for militants.