EU faces pressure to speak out against Turkey's media restrictions

ANKARA, Turkey -- The European Union is facing increasing pressure to speak out against the erosion of media freedom in Turkey following the takeover of the country's largest-circulation newspaper, but few expect it to take a bold stance toward Ankara while trying to assure its help in dealing with the migration crisis.

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Police used tear gas and water cannons for a second day running on Saturday to disperse hundreds of protesters who gathered outside the headquarters of Zaman newspaper -- now surrounded by police fences. Law enforcement officers stormed the building on Friday to enforce the court-ordered seizure of the publication, which is linked to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's top foe, U.S.-based opposition cleric Fethullah Gulen.

The protesters chanted "free press cannot be silenced" and "Zaman cannot be silenced" as riot police used shields and fired tear gas to push back the crowd, sending demonstrators running into side streets for protection.

Some were seen rubbing their faces with pieces of lemon to mitigate the effects of the tear gas, the private Dogan news agency reported. A number of protesters were injured.

The Istanbul court's appointment of trustees to manage Zaman and its sister outlets further reduced the number of opposition media organizations in Turkey, which is dominated by pro-government news outlets. It raised alarm bells over the deterioration of rights conditions in the NATO member nation, which also aspires for EU membership, just days before a March 7 meeting, in which EU leaders will try to convince Turkey to do more to curtail the flow of migrants travelling to Europe.

"The EU countries are preoccupied with their migration crisis, they are no longer concerned by rights violations in Turkey," said Semih Idiz, columnist for the opposition Cumhuriyet and independent Daily Hurriyet newspapers. "They'll say a few things as a matter of form, but they know they are dependent on Turkey."

The Saturday edition of the English-language Today's Zaman, published before the forced takeover, printed its entire front page in black with the headline: "Shameful day for free press in Turkey."

Zaman's seizure was part of an intensified crackdown on Gulen's movement, which the government claims is attempting to topple it. Authorities accuse the movement's followers of infiltrating police and the judiciary and of orchestrating corruption allegations in 2013 that implicated Erdogan's inner circle, as part of their alleged bid to bring down the government.

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, was once Erdogan's ally. Over the past years, however, the government has purged thousands of civil servants allegedly linked to the movement and seized businesses affiliated to it. The movement has also been branded a terror organization although it is not known to have carried out any acts of violence.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking to Turkish reporters during a visit to Iran, insisted that the appointment of trustee managers was a legal decision, not a political one and denied any government involvement in the move.

"We did not interfere ... nor would be interfere" Davutoglu said, adding that he was concerned that the issue would infringe on the "positive agenda" of Monday's Turkey-EU summit.

Rights groups accuse EU nations of keeping mute about deteriorating freedoms and human rights abuses in Turkey -- including the large civilian death toll during military operations against Kurdish militants -- because of the country's crucial role in curtailing the flow of migrants to Europe.

"The European Union and the United States, as Turkey's partners and allies, should not trade Turkey's support on migration and Syria for silence over the dismantling of democratic institutions," said Daniel Calingaert, executive vice-president of the U.S.-based watchdog, Freedom House, following Zaman's take-over.

The European Federation of Journalists said: "The European Union cannot remain silent to the political seizure of Zaman newspaper, Today's Zaman daily and Cihan news agency."

But the EU commissioner for enlargement, Johannes Hahn, said on Twitter that he was "extremely worried" by the development.

"Turkey, as a candidate country, needs to respect freedom of the media," Hahn said.

European Parliament President Martin Schultz said he intends to raise the issue with Davutoglu in Brussels.


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