ISTANBUL, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Two Turkish opposition newspapers seized in a crackdown on an arch-enemy of President Tayyip Erdogan suddenly turned staunchly pro-government on Friday, publishing fawning front pages after new state-appointed management sacked most of their staff.
Police fired pepper spray and water cannon as they forced their way into the offices of a media company housing the Bugun and Millet newspapers and two TV channels on Wednesday, taking the building over as part of an investigation into the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
The move, ahead of a general election on Sunday, drew criticism from rights groups in Turkey and abroad.
The newspapers’ front pages, long fiercely critical of Erdogan and his administration, carried photographs on Friday of the president flanked by his wife and military officers during national day celebrations the previous day.
“Turkey as One Heart”, read Millet’s headline. “The Square of the People”, said Bugun, playing to Erodgan’s self-image as “the people’s president” despite opposition criticism of his vast new-1,000 room palace and authoritarian instincts.
“Overnight the newspaper changed character. It looks like Pravda today. You see Erdogan, our president, saluting the people,” said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a Bugun columnist whose final article was not published and who was uncertain whether he even has a job at the paper. “I suppose it will depend on the election result.”
Before the takeover, the newspapers’ front pages had protested the seizure, including headlines “Theft by Trustee” in Bugun and “Bloody Putsch” in Millet, set against a black page.
But a newly-appointed editor ordered police to remove from the building anyone who tried to defend those front pages, according to journalists who were in the newsroom.
“He held up the front page and said, ‘Is this your paper? This is a disgrace. If anyone here thinks like this, they should not stay, they should go’,” Cihan Acar, a Millet reporter, told Reuters TV.
“Then he took the names of us who defended the page and we were sacked immediately.”
Amateur cellphone footage showed what appeared to be the new editor holding up the paper and saying: “Anyone here who thinks like this should inform us and we will sit and talk.”
Acar is then heard stating his name, before the new editor points him out to a police officer and orders he be escorted from the premises. Dozens of people were sacked on the first day of the takeover, editors said.
Authorities said the raid on parent company Koza Ipek Holding, which has links to Gulen, was part of an investigation into alleged financial irregularities and was backed by a court order. The company denies wrongdoing.
Erdogan accuses Gulen of seeking to overthrow him by establishing a “parallel structure” within state institutions. He clamped down on Gulen’s commercial interests after police and prosecutors considered sympathetic to the cleric opened a graft investigation of Erdogan’s inner circle in 2013.
Erhan Basyurt, Bugun’s editor-in-chief, said the first move of state-appointed trustees sent in to safeguard the company as an ongoing business had been to cut the broadcasts of two TV channels from satellite feeds and to stop the printing presses for the two newspapers.
“The trustees appointed to protect the interests of the parent company instead caused about $1.5 million in losses in two days,” he said. (Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Angus MacSwan)