Turkish opposition newspaper turns pro-government after state takeover

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A day after Turkey’s top-selling newspaper Zaman was taken over by the state, it dropped its criticisms of the government on Sunday and published flattering stories on President Tayyip Erdogan.

Police officers carry security barriers in front of the Zaman newspaper headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey March 6, 2016. REUTERS/ Osman Orsal

The episode is the latest twist in a long-running conflict between Erdogan and U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen.

Police raided the offices of Zaman, which is affiliated with Gulen, late on Friday after a court approved a request by a prosecutor to appoint a state administrator to the daily. The prosecutor is investigating whether funds have been diverted to Gulen.

Sunday’s front page included a story about Erdogan’s planned reception to mark International Women’s Day and his visit to the site of a bridge being built across Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait.

There was no mention of protests by Gulen’s supporters on Friday and Saturday when police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse large crowds gathered outside of the newspaper.

Rights groups and European officials criticised the seizure, saying it infringed on press freedom in the EU candidate country.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is flying to Brussels for an emergency summit on refugees on Monday, rejected that charge, saying a legal process was under way to investigate illicit financing of a “terrorist” organisation and that there had been no political interference.

Erdogan and Davutoglu accuse Gulen of plotting to topple their government in 2013 after police suspected of belonging to the religious movement leaked a corruption investigation into Erdogan’s family and ministers.

Some 50 people stood outside of the paper’s Istanbul offices again on Sunday, witnesses said. The atmosphere was calm.

Sunday’s edition was a slim version of its previous self at just 12 pages and with sparse content.

Zaman’s website was offline, with a message that read: “We will provide you, our readers, with a better quality and more objective service as soon as possible.”

The website of the English-language Today’s Zaman, which was also confiscated, featured stories about the takeover and the EU’s critical response but had not been updated since Saturday.

Zaman’s editors were once largely supportive of Erdogan, who served as prime minister between 2003 and 2014 before winning the presidency, but differences emerged over foreign policy and a government plan to shut schools run by Gulen’s followers.

The paper’s editor-in-chief, Abdulhamit Bilici, was fired on Saturday, editors said.

Reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley and Osman Orsal; Editing by Stephen Powell