Tear gas fired at Zaman protests
Tear gas and water cannons were fired at Turkish protesters demonstrating against the state takeover of the Zaman newspaper Reuters

Turkish police fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters who had gathered at the offices of the country's biggest newspaper to demonstrate against a court order placing it under state control. As riot police entered the building of Zaman, staff worked frantically to put out the next edition before the takeover.

In a live-stream broadcast on the paper's website supporters could be seen chanting, "Free press cannot be silenced" and columnists could be seen addressing the crowd of hundreds who had gathered outside the newspaper's offices in Turkey's largest city, Istanbul. Police later used water cannon and tear gas to disperse the protesters.

On 5 March a journalist from the paper tweeted pictures of armed police outside the offices and accused them of turning it into a "de-facto prison".

While no explanation was given for the court ruling that Zaman, which has a circulation of around 650,000, should be run by administrators, the move was seen as part of a widening crackdown against supporters of a US-based rival of the country's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

A spokesperson from Britain's Foreign Office told the IB Times UK that it "reinforces our long-standing concerns about freedom of press in Turkey."

"As an ally and friend we urge the Turkish government to uphold the right of media to operate without restriction," they said. "Access to a range of views are crucial in a democracy."

Zaman is closely linked to the Hizmet movement of influential cleric Fethullah Gülen, once a close ally of the Turkish leader, but now a bitter enemy. Erdoğan accuses Gülen of conspiring to overthrow the government by building "parallel state structure" of supporters in the judiciary, police and media.

Last year, two newspapers and two TV channels were put under state administration over their alleged links with the Hizmet movement. Currently, Turkey ranks 149th among 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders' World Press Index 2015, which rates countries on state restrictions on press freedom.

Decrying the court order the editor-in-chief of Zaman's English language sister paper Today Zaman, Sevgi Akarçeşme said it meant "the practical end of media freedom in Turkey".

"The media has always been under pressure, but it has never been so blatant," she said. "Taking over a newspaper is against the constitution, especially since there are no grounds for it. This amounts to the suspension of the constitution."

However, speaking to the Cihan news agency shortly before the raid Zaman's editor-in-chief Abdülhamit Bilici was defiant.

"I believe that free media will continue even if we have to write on the walls," he said. "I don't think it is possible to silence media in the digital age."

The takeover was nonetheless criticised by the US State Department who called it "the latest in a series of troubling judicial and law enforcement actions taken by the Turkish government".

The move against Zaman comes days after Turkey's Constitutional Court ordered two Turkish journalists to be released from detention. Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, reporters from the Cumhuriyet newspaper, had been charged with revealing state secrets. They were detained in November over a report alleging that the Turkish government had tried to ship arms to Islamists in Syria. The pair still face possible life sentences at their trial on 25 March.