Turkish riot police firing tear gas and water cannon on Wednesday stormed into the Istanbul headquarters of a media group linked to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s main rival, just days before a weekend election.
The action triggered widespread concern about media freedom in Turkey, with critics accusing the government of trying to silence opponents of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of Sunday’s vote.
Police in riot helmets moved in after a controversial court ruling ordered the seizure of the Kozi-Ipek conglomerate linked to US-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, the one-time Erdogan ally now regarded as his nemesis.
Officers smashed through the gates of the media compound with chainsaws, according to images broadcast live on the group’s television stations, Bugun and Kanalturk.
Brawls also broke out outside the offices, prompting police to use tear gas and batons against demonstrators, including lawmakers from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Several arrests were made, including a reporter from Bugun TV, the private NTV television channel reported.
CHP lawmakers and Bugun TV editor-in-chief Tarik Toros were seen negotiating with police chiefs who tried to cut the live broadcast.
– ‘A shameful day’ –
“Dear viewers, do not be surprised if you see police in our studio in the next few minutes,” Toros said.
“This is an operation to silence all the dissident voices that the ruling party does not like, including media outlets, opposition parties and businessmen. This is true for anyone who does not obey.”
“Today is a shameful day… Everyone who made this decision and those who implemented it will have to answer for their crimes before history,” said CHP lawmaker Baris Yarkadas.
The United States also weighed in after the seizure of the Koza-Ipek companies, voicing concern about media freedom in its NATO ally.
“We continue to urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold universal democratic values… including due process, freedom of expression and assembly, and of course access to media and information,” State Departement spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz wrote on Twitter that he was “deeply concerned” about the seizure, adding: “Free media (is) a cornerstone of vibrant democracies.”
An Ankara court on Monday had appointed a board of trustees to manage the Koza-Ipek group, seizing its 23 companies as part of a crackdown on Gulen’s followers.
The move triggered demonstrations in both Ankara and Istanbul on Tuesday, with protesters chanting: “We will not be silenced.”
Ankara chief prosecutor’s office said in a statement the seizure was linked to an investigation into the conglomerate on suspicion of “terror financing”, “terror propaganda” and other offences related to Koza-Ipek’s support for Gulen’s Hizmet (Service) movement.
Koza-Ipek Holding, which was founded in 1948, operates businesses ranging from media to mining, insurance to healthcare and tourism to food.
– Shares tumble –
Shares in its listed companies, which include Turkey’s biggest gold miner, sank around 10 percent on the Istanbul bourse on Wednesday.
Media rights groups have expressed concern over a further decline in press freedom since Erdogan became president in August last year after more than a decade as premier.
International journalists have been arrested and deported, while about 20 are currently detained on a variety of charges.
Sunday’s election is crucial for the AKP, which lost its parliamentary majority in a June vote, scuppering Erdogan’s hopes of changing the constitution to expand his presidential powers.
Turkish authorities have also ramped up their campaign in recent months against Pennsylvania-based Gulen, who Erdogan accuses of operating a “state within a “state” in Turkey.
Police in September raided Koza-Ipek’s media companies, briefly detaining six people including its CEO as part of a “terrorism probe” into the 74-year-old cleric.
Erdogan accuses Gulen of trying to topple him by persuading allies in Turkey’s police and judiciary to launch a vast probe into government corruption in December 2013, which led to the resignation of four ministers.
Turkey’s authorities responded by purging both the police force and judiciary of pro-Gulen elements and arresting news editors and businessmen.
The cleric, who left for the United States in 1999 to escape charges of anti-secular activities by the government of the day, denies the latest allegations.