Police broke into the newsrooms of the Zaman and Today's Zaman dailies and the Aksiyon weekly magazine, part of the Zaman Media Group, in the Yenibosna neighborhood of İstanbul late on Wednesday, with helicopters hovering above and water cannon and riot police in front of the building.
The raid came amidst rumors that the media group was among the government's targets after another critical media group was seized late last month. The police raid on the three critical media outlets was carried out over claims that the Özgür Bugün daily -- which was launched after trustees were appointed to the Bugün daily's administration in a controversial decision -- was being printed at a printing house belonging to the Zaman daily.
Although police were expected to search only the printing house of the daily based on a court decision to that effect, they returned to the building after an "anonymous call" and searched the newsrooms of Zaman, Today's Zaman and the Aksiyon weekly, journalists in the building said.
The Zaman daily's lawyer, Ali Odabaşı, said there was no court warrant to search the Zaman building, adding the police came to the daily over a complaint by the Bugün daily's lawyers that the Özgür Bugün daily was being printed at Zaman headquarters.
While the search was still under way at the printing house, pro-government journalists began tweeting photos featuring copies of the Özgür Bugün daily dated Oct. 30 and Oct. 31, claiming that "pirated copies" of the Bugün daily were found during the search. The photo was allegedly sent to the journalists by Bugün's lawyers who were present during the search. The lawyers claim Özgür Bugün violates the Bugün daily's trademark rights.
In spite of the objections of the lawyers representing the Zaman Media Group, the police officers carried out searches of the floors of the three media outlets and searched the drawers of the correspondents despite the fact that the search warrant was issued just for the printing facilities and not the group's headquarters.
While a cameraman from one of the group's outlets began filming the search, the police asked the cameraman to stop filming. When the cameraman continued to do his job, the police officer accused him of tampering with evidence.
A copy of the Bakırköy 2nd Penal Court of Peace's order for a search of the Zaman headquarters that was circulated on Twitter revealed that Bugün's lawyers asked the court to seize the Zaman printing house on the grounds that it was publishing Özgür Bugün, but the court rejected the request. The court reportedly pointed to Article 30 of the Constitution, which says, "A printing house and its annexes, duly established as a press enterprise under law, and press equipment shall not be seized, confiscated, or barred from operation on the grounds of having been used in a crime."
Critics fear the government is trying to create a pretext to finally seize Zaman, one of the few remaining critical media groups in Turkey, with Wednesday's raid.
Police raided the headquarters of a number of media outlets early on Oct. 28 after the Ankara 5th Criminal Court of Peace ruled on Oct. 26 for the takeover of the administration of Koza İpek Holding's companies, which includes critical media outlets in the İpek Media Group, in a government-backed move. The trustees then took over the management of the Bugün and Millet dailies as well as the stations Bugün TV and Kanaltürk, following the police intervention, during which many journalists and protesters were subjected to excessive police force.
The Bugün and Millet dailies published their first editions after the trustees' takeover on Oct. 30. Both papers contained what could be interpreted as propaganda from the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with almost no reports on opposition parties, despite a general election being due to take place on Nov. 1. The newspapers under the management of the new trustees have since been turned into mouthpieces of the AK Party and Erdoğan. The new management has also fired tens of journalists working at those newspapers and hired pro-government journalists instead.
In reaction to the new pro-government stance taken by their confiscated dailies, the editors of the Bugün daily who had been fired started preparing an alternative edition of the paper to provide a platform for the publication of pieces they produce independently. The new website has attracted great interest and support from readers.
Wednesday's police raid comes amidst increasing pressure on free media in Turkey and speculation that the government plans to seize the Zaman Media Group, one of the largest media groups in Turkey, which also includes Today's Zaman.
Last week, Twitter whistleblower Fuat Avni claimed Erdoğan ordered the appointment of trustees to seize media outlets close to the Gülen movement, which is inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.
The whistleblower stated that Erdoğan is planning to implement all his “plots” against the critical media before losing the “virtual power” he acquired following the Nov. 1 snap election that brought a landslide victory to the AK Party he co-founded.
“They want to finish the Cemaat [the movement's] media immediately and then move on to other media [outlets that are critical of government]. He [Erdoğan] ordered the appointment of trustees to the Samanyolu Group and the Zaman daily. They are next,” he tweeted.
Many in Turkey are concerned that the government crackdown on critical and independent media has reached such a point that takeovers will soon engulf other media groups. Government whistleblower Fuat Avni claimed back in August that Koza İpek and later the Aydın Doğan media group would be seized by the government.
An anonymous AK Party-linked account, @WUAttack -- notorious for targeting government critics through hatemongering -- also tweeted on Wednesday as police raided Zaman that the daily was going to be seized after the conclusion of the G-20 summit to be held in Turkey on Nov. 15-16.
Raid marked by series of unlawfulness
- The official order by the prosecutor demands the seizure of the printing facilities of the Zaman group, an order that is completely unconstitutional. The article of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) that prescribes the conditions of seizing property states that no property that is not used to commit an offense can be seized. This means the Özgür Bugün daily should have been used in a process of committing a crime. However, the daily is printed legally after the necessary permissions were granted from the necessary institutions.
- The trustee claims the daily is being sent to subscribers of the Bugün daily, but there is no such crime specified in the law. If there is a disagreement with the name of the Özgür Bugün, then there is a legal process to object to the name within three months. Also, a judge rejected an appeal regarding the disagreement over the names of the two dailies.
- Also, the judge who ordered the search issued the ruling for the facilities of the media group and not for Aksiyon, Today's Zaman and Zaman, causing any search outside of the printing facilities to be illegal.
- In its order, the judge underlined that the search can be conducted only once and only three copies can be seized during the search. Thus, the order limits police officers to only taking three copies of Özgür Bugün after it was found that the daily is being printed at the printing facilities. The official police report mentions copies of the Zaman, Meydan, Bugün and Millet dailies being confiscated on each floor of the Zaman building, a case of the police overstepping its authorities.
Özgür Bugün regularly sent to prosecutor's office
Even though the police raid was conducted on the pretext that Özgür Bugün is illegally printed in the printing house, the daily, along with Zaman, Meydan and Today's Zaman, is regularly sent to the Bakırköy Prosecutor's Office.
In the meantime, Feza Gazetecilik A.S. issued a written statement on Thursday on the unlawful raid, saying that the law regulating the principles of printing the dailies allow printing houses to print other publications beside its own dailies and magazines.
"Also, despite the fact that the judge ordered just three copies of Özgür Bugün to be confiscated from the printing house, widening the search in a way that includes the media group's newsrooms is completely unlawful," the statement continued.