ISTANBUL // Turkish riot police fired plastic bullets, tear gas and water cannon on Saturday to disperse hundreds of protesters who had gathered outside the headquarters of the country’s top-selling newspaper a day after it was seized by authorities in a violent raid.
"Free press cannot be silenced," the crowd of around 500 protesters shouted outside the Istanbul premises of the Zaman daily, which is which is staunchly opposed to president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Before midnight on Friday, police had also fired tear gas and water cannon to move away a hundreds-strong crowd that had formed outside the newspaper following a court order placing the business under administration.
Zaman, which is closely linked to Mr Erdogan's arch-foe the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, was ordered into administration on the request of Istanbul prosecutors, local media reported.
Friday’s swoop against the newspaper caused immediate concern in Washington and Brussels over declining media freedoms in Turkey, a key European Union ally.
It also came ahead of a visit by prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Brussels on Monday for a crucial summit meeting with EU leaders on Europe’s migrant crisis.
On Saturday, Zaman published a defiant edition, warning that the previous day was "one of the darkest" in the history of press.
“The Constitution is suspended,” the newspaper said on its front page in large font on a black background.
Zaman, with an estimated circulation of 650,000, went to print earlier than usual on Friday evening.
The number of its pages was reduced to 16 from 24 and it was printed before the police raid shortly before midnight local time.
A team of police arrived with water cannon trucks and advanced military style towards the waiting supporters, firing 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.
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.
EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said he was “extremely worried” by the move “which jeopardises progress” made by Turkey in other areas.
He warned that Turkey, which is a long-standing candidate to join the EU, needs to “respect the freedom of the media” and rights were “not negotiable”.
The United States, meanwhile, 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,” US state department spokesman John Kirby said.
Ankara accuses US-based cleric Mr Gulen of running what it calls the Fethullahci Terror Organisation/Parallel State Structure (FeTO/PDY) and seeking to overthrow the legitimate Turkish authorities.
Local media said the court order was issued on the grounds that Zaman supported the activities of this "terror organisation".
Mr Gulen has been based in the US since 1999 when he fled charges against him laid by the former secular authorities.
Despite living outside of Turkey, Mr Gulen has 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 Mr Gulen.
The effective seizure of Zaman by the state has added to concerns over freedom of expression in Turkey under Mr 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 Mr Erdogan.
* Agence France-Presse