The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed deep concern over reports that Turkey’s government plans to take over and silence the opposition Zaman Media Group.

Reports have indicated that the government has appointed a trustee to seize the group and oversee it, repeating a similar move the government made in September when it took over the opposition Koza İpek Media Group in advance of parliamentary elections.

Both groups are reportedly linked to the movement headed by Muslim cleric and former Justice and Development Party (AKP) ally Fethullah Gülen, which the government labelled a terrorist group in the wake of a wide-ranging, but since-suppressed, 2013 graft probe implicating a number of AKP lawmakers. AKP leaders argue the probe was a “coup” attempt based on fabricated evidence.

IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said the latest reports were “extremely troubling” and he called on representatives of foreign governments to firmly condemn the Turkish government’s efforts to silence its critics.

“Turkey’s government appears to be willing to stop at no end to muzzle those who dare to criticise the policies of the president and the ruling AKP, much less those who point out alleged wrongdoing,” he said. “We urge diplomats and representatives of the international media to remind the Turkish government that a system where media outlets are prevented from giving citizens the information they need to hold their government accountable can hardly be called a functioning ‘democracy’.”

Sevgi Akarçeşme, the editor-in-chief of the English-language daily Today’s Zaman, sister publication of the group’s flagship Turkish-language daily Zaman, told IPI that staff were on edge, with some fearing that the editions they were preparing today could be the newspapers’ last. She said that employees believed a government seizure was “imminent” and that a trustee could arrive “at any minute”.

The newspapers issued a joint statement earlier today, in which they noted that they “have come under serious pressure for more than two years, which has taken the form of accreditation bans, tax inspections, meddling with [their] advertisers and threats to [their] readers.” It continued: “We have now been threatened with confiscation through the appointment of trustees. We are deeply concerned about all these developments that undermine Turkey’s democratic performance. We believe the only way out of this nightmarish atmosphere is to return to democracy and the rule of law.”

Observers told IPI that the reported move appeared to be retaliation by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after Turkey’s Constitutional Court last week dealt him a blow when it ruled that the pre-trial detention of Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül violated their human rights. The pair spent 92 days behind bars on terrorism and espionage charges based on accusations that their reports on allegations that Turkey’s intelligence agency was arming Islamist rebels in Syria was intended to advance the aims of the Gülen movement.

Erdoğan said early this week that he neither accepted nor respected the decision, and he vowed not to obey it. Both Erdoğan and AKP lawmakers have argued that the case did not involve press freedom and they have called on the criminal court set to start trial against Dündar and Gül on March 25 to re-arrest them. Pro-government media outlets and the online whistleblower have claimed that such a re-arrest may also be imminent.

Some lawmakers have also suggested opening investigations into justices on the Constitutional Court that ruled for Dündar and Gül’s release, arguing that the Court’s decision – not the journalists’ lengthy pre-trial detention – was unconstitutional.