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On Friday Dec. 14, news of resignations from daily Taraf filtered out, with editor-in-chief Ahmet Altan, assistant editor Yasemin Çongar, and columnists Murat Belge and Neşe Tüzel resigning from their posts at the paper.

Founded in 2007, Taraf has become one of the most controversial and agenda-setting newspapers over the last five years. Originally set up by a group of like-minded liberals and leftists, the paper became renowned for its anti-military stance, publishing a series of highly-controversial stories that revealed the extent of the Turkish military’s involvement in daily political affairs. Taking on the once-mighty Turkish military saw Taraf regularly prefixed with adjectives like “plucky” and “brave,” and even lead to its accreditation from military press releases being cancelled. However, as question marks have steadily increased over the inconsistencies and judicial irregularities of anti-military crusades such as the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, differences of opinion within Taraf have become increasingly evident. Altan’s editorials became increasingly critical of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, creating friction within the paper that I previously wrote about here and here. This divergence of opinion appears to be the main reason behind the latest resignations, with the more critical, anti-AKP voices having been purged, (it is strongly rumoured that they have gone – like many in other newspapers – following government pressure).

Front page banner on Dec. 15, showing a picture of Altan and Çongar. The headline reads "We are grateful"

Taraf’s front page banner on Dec. 15, showing Altan and Çongar. The headline reads: “We are grateful”

Most have assumed that the resignations bring about the effective the end of the paper. Nevertheless, Taraf patron Başar Arslan apparently intends to continue publication, announcing to the Istanbul Stock Exchange on Monday that former managing editor Markar Esayan had “temporarily” taken over its editorial chair. Nevertheless, a number of important names from Taraf’s Ankara bureau signed an open letter addressed to Arslan, stating:

“If Ahmet Altan and Yasemin Çongar go, it means that we go too … We are sure that Altan’s removal from the newspaper was a political decision … Our last word is this: We are waiting for Altan and Çongar to be returned to their previous positions as soon as possible.”

Following the resignations, veteran Turkish media observer Yavuz Baydar described the events at Taraf as “a new wound for journalism.” In a similar tone, Taraf columnist Emre Uslu wrote in Today’s Zaman:

“This crisis is a benchmark by which to understand the standards of Turkish democracy because Taraf was the last bastion of refuge for democrats and civilian opposition, who fought alongside the AK Party government against the military but turned against this government as it moves away from democratic standards … Taraf was criticizing the government for not bringing about and not institutionalizing democratic standards, yet ironically the paper became the victim of the system it has been criticizing for a long time.”

Milliyet columnist Kadri Gürsel wrote what was effectively an obituary for Taraf, describing it as a “zombie paper” that had now outlived its original purpose:

“With the ‘spirit of Taraf’ Ahmet Altan having left, the paper will from now on be a zombie … Taraf was established as a newspaper with a mission … Its aim was to purge the military from politics, ‘demilitarisation.’ But it has become clear that democratisation does not necessarily follow demilitarisation and civilianisation.”

Meanwhile, Dani Rodrik, (who moonlights as the leading name writing in English on the contradictions and irregularities of the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases – found on his blog here), conspicuously used the past tense to describe Taraf on Twitter:

Taraf’s journalistic standards were absolutely the pits. Calling the publication ‘liberal’ is a great insult to liberals … Taraf published countless bogus ‘exposes’ fed to it by the police. Its motto was ‘we will publish any trash as long as its anti-military’ … In the name of democracy, Taraf voluntarily cooperated with a gang and together violated the rules of media ethics.”

Still, correct as Rodrik is, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the recent resignations don’t also represent “prime evidence of how much Turkey is slipping backwards,” as written by Yigil Schleifer – both can be true. If the past tense can really now be used to discuss Taraf, perhaps it can also finally be used to talk about any remnants of liberal Turkish sympathy for the AKP. With the passing of Taraf perhaps a chapter in Turkish politics also passes, and the last (much belated) nail can finally be hammered into the coffin of the 10-year-long flirtation between liberals and the AKP.

Recently, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly expressed his opinion that Turkey should consider reinstating capital punishment “in certain situations.” He first brought the issue up at a meeting of his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) deputies on Nov. 3, in reference to Abdullah Öcalan, the convicted leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and has returned to it on a number of occasions since. “Right now a lot of people in public surveys say that capital punishment should be reintroduced … It is legitimate in certain situations,” Erdoğan said. “Yes, the death penalty was removed from Europe, but has it left America, Japan and China? Then there is a justified cause for the death penalty to remain.”

Capital punishment was abolished by Turkey in 2002, just prior to the AKP’s accession to power in the general elections of that year. Although no execution had been carried out by the Turkish state since 1984, an official end to the practice on the Turkish law books was seen as one of the key steps in Turkey’s EU accession process, which was then entering its most energetic period. The decision was fairly controversial at the time, as PKK leader Öcalan was captured and sentenced to death by the Turkish authorities in 1999. With the abolition of capital punishment, this sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and Öcalan has since been held in a remote prison on İmralı Island in the Marmara Sea. With the recent spike in clashes between the Turkish security forces and the PKK, Erdoğan’s words on capital punishment should be interpreted in terms of the government’s failure to solve the Kurdish question – populist sentiments aiming to deflect nationalist criticism that he has made too many concessions to Kurdish rights with little to show in return.

The most striking newspaper coverage of the issue I saw came from popular pro-government daily Sabah, the newspaper with the fourth highest circulation nationally. Its Nov. 13 front page carried the bold headline “Bring back capital punishment, end this business.” These were the words of Fatma Çınar, the mother of one of the 17 soldiers killed in the recent helicopter crash in the southeastern province of Siirt, speaking at her son’s funeral. The crash was not a result of direct clashes with the PKK, but it was enough for PM Erdoğan to frame it as taking place within “much intensified, multi-dimensional” military operations in the region.

The return of the issue to the national debate has predictably raised eyebrows among those parts of the media who retain forlorn hopes that Turkey’s EU accession process can still be revived from its current moribund state. Opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Rıza Türmen, who worked for 10 years at the European Court of Human Rights, wrote in Milliyet on Nov. 13: “Capital punishment is banned according to the third section of the European Union’s founding principles, and the lifting of capital punishment is a precondition for membership of the EU and the European Council … Is leaving the EU process what the prime minister actually wants?” Meanwhile, Taraf editor Ahmet Altan’s disillusionment continued on the same day: “We’ve gone from a country that celebrated with enthusiasm the opening of ‘full EU membership negotiations,’ to one with a prime minister – like a funeral undertaker – shouting ‘hang them, hang them’ at every opportunity.” A response even came from the murky corridors of the EU itself, with Peter Stano, the spokesman for Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle, stating: “Our position on this is quite clear. Countries wishing to be a member of the EU cannot practice capital punishment. If capital punishment comes, the EU goes.”

Meanwhile, the hunger strikes of 700 Kurdish prisoners today entered their 64th day. Despite the increasing urgency of the situation, Erdoğan has so far ignored calls to directly engage in finding a solution. He even spent Nov. 12 in his hometown of Rize, receiving an honorary doctorate from the newly-established “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University” (it’s sometimes difficult to tell in Turkey that you’re not reading The Onion). His words on capital punishment have certainly been an effective tactic distracting some attention away from the critical situation of the strikers. However, like the Peace and Democracy Party’s (BDP) recent remarks about erecting a statue of Öcalan, they have hardly done much to help create an atmosphere congenial to a solution.

I’ve written about “liberal disillusionment” in Turkey through the example of Taraf newspaper before. At that time, (as now), there was much talk about the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government moving away from its reformist impulses and regressing into an increasingly authoritarian conservative nationalism. Taraf had previously been known as a supporter of the government’s anti-military crusade during its first two terms in office, but this support has evidently been waning in recent times, with increasingly strident criticism sent in the direction of the government by editor Ahmet Altan.

Apparently, not everybody at the newspaper is pleased with this new tone, and a heated discussion has recently broken out on its pages. The debate is essentially between those who believe that the AKP government can be redirected back to its previous reformist zeal, and those who think it is beyond saving. Taraf is often seen – by both its critics and its supporters – as being somehow “different” to other Turkish newspapers. However, as Altan writes ironically, there is another difference that has distinguished it of late: “In other newspapers, editors tell their writers: ‘Don’t criticise the government too harshly.’ In our newspaper, the writers tell the editor ‘Don’t criticise the government too harshly.’ I must confess that I don’t enjoy this difference.”

The three main players in the dispute are editor Altan, sub-editor Yıldıray Oğur, and columnist Alper Görmüş. In his criticism of Altan, Görmüş drew a distinction between “critical” and “opposition” journalism, suggesting that what makes Taraf ethically distinct from other newspapers critical of the government was its measured and reasoned criticism, which never veered into automatic “opposition for the sake of opposition.”

Meanwhile, in his own column, Oğur shared Görmüş’s criticisms of Altan, but emphasized a longer view. Mostly focusing on the Kurdish question, Oğur made quite an interesting argument, essentially saying that a bit of tough authoritarianism was necessary in the current situation, and that in the long term a more democratic and palatable system would hopefully emerge. A few eggs have got to be cracked to make an omelette, etc:

“The problem can only be solved by a party like the AK Party, which enjoys the support of 50 percent of society, and by a leader like Erdoğan, who has the broad support of the masses …

“It’s difficult to accept, but the Kurdish question cannot be solved by the Norwegian social democrat prime minister of our dreams. This problem can be solved by a leader who enjoys the support of 50 percent of the population, who Turks still trust even when a new funeral comes every day, and even when he mentions opening new talks with İmralı [referring to Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK].”

There is a certain amount of onanism to all of this; but, of course, there is a fair amount of onanism to the whole institution of “köşe yazarlık” (column writing) that fills up every Turkish newspaper. Unfortunately, as  Justin Vela pointed out recently on Eurasia.org, for many in Turkey: “Having an opinion that you express regularly in a media outlet is enough to make you a journalist.” As I have previously written in a piece on press freedom, although newspaper columnists do perform a certain important function, many in Turkey mistakenly believe that they alone make for an effective forth estate.

The European Commission published the 15th(!) annual “progress report” on Turkey’s EU accession bid on Oct. 10. It makes for depressing reading – not only because it is 87 more pages of EU bureaucracy, but because it comes at such an inauspicious time, with Turkey’s EU accession process having slid into something worse than just abeyance.

It has been widely interpreted as the harshest report on Turkey issued by the EU yet, criticising familiar enough failures: the lack of further steps towards a political solution to the Kurdish conflict, concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression and press self-censorship, judicial deficiencies, gender inequality, and worrying signs of rising discrimination against Alevis.

Once upon a time, these progress reports would dominate the Turkish media’s agenda, but no longer. Numerous dailies had no coverage at all of the report on their Oct. 11 front pages. Daily Milliyet, a newspaper that has always tended to show more interest than most in Turkey’s EU accession process, was the only major newspaper to focus on the issue for its main front page story. Under a headline titled “From the EU to its members: Don’t block Turkey,” Milliyet emphasised the words of the European commissioner in charge of enlargement, Stefan Füle, commenting after the release of the report. Füle laid most responsibility for the lack of progress squarely at the door of those EU members opposed to Turkish membership, such as France and South Cyprus. He described Turkey as a “key country” for the union and said that its future membership was ultimately “in the interest of all members.”

I was not surprised to see that newspapers known to be friendly to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) generally responded to the report with government-sanctioned indifference. Zaman included a low-key article on page 18 under the headline, “What kind of progress report is this?” listing the criticisms levelled and particularly focussing on the words of EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee member Helene Flautre, who said:

“It is deceptive to describe this report as a ‘progress report’ on Turkey’s EU accession process when there is no progress …  With Turkey in the process of discussing a new constitution, the EU could hardly have picked a worse time to abdicate its influence on reforms in the country.”

While it no doubt feels some resentment about Turkey being lectured to by the European Union, nationalist anti-AKP daily Sözcü seized the opportunity to once again slam the government, a banner on its front page declaring: “Sledgehammer from Europe to the AKP” (clearly referencing the controversial “Balyoz,” or Sledgehammer case). “The EU hasn’t swallowed Tayyip’s ‘advanced democracy’ tale,” it said.

Meanwhile, the EU report caused barely a ripple among the army of Turkish newspaper columnists, who are generally all preoccupied with the ongoing Syrian crisis. Still, Taraf’s Ahmet Altan addressed the issue and struck a faintly desperate note on Oct. 11, writing one of his characteristic editorials – somehow pulling off the miraculous trick of combining onanism with self-flagellation:

 “I don’t think it’s very complicated. In Turkey, all disagreements return to two basic questions: Do we want European standards of democracy, or not? In Turkey, do we believe we are worthy of European standards of democracy, or not?

“… This is a time when Albania can be recommended for EU membership ahead of us. If you’re not uncomfortable with our own distance from EU standards then you’re welcome to continue with demagoguery, nonsense, and humming and hawing.”

In response to the report, Turkish Minister of EU Affairs Egemen Bağış described it as “disappointing,” and “unbalanced.” “The EU’s broken mirror is far away from reflecting the truth. The report is only a reflection of efforts to delay Turkey’s EU membership, since the EU is in an economic and political crisis,” he said.

Anyway, two weeks before the official unveiling of the report, Bağış had announced that he “no longer took [the progress reports] seriously.” Somewhat alarmingly, he said that he gave more importance to the government’s own self-produced assessment: “At the end of the year we will prepare our own progress report.  For us, the progress report we prepare for ourselves is the most important one.”

On July 14, leftist daily BirGün included a piece discussing liberal daily Taraf’s recent turn away from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Prompted by Ahmet Altan’s July 13 editorial bemoaning the AKP’s departure from its earlier EU-minded liberal-reformist impulses – the latest in a series of articles critical of the government – BirGün described the shift with some incredulity. Taraf, the piece said, used to label government critics anti-democratic nationalists in thrall to regressive military tutelage, strongly supported a “yes” vote in the September 2010 constitutional referendum, hailed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a saviour of the Kurds, and openly recognised the “Armenian Genocide” on its front page. Recently, however, the paper’s criticism of the AKP’s authoritarian turn has increased significantly. Taraf’s move against the government could be seen as representative of disillusioned liberal Turkish opinion these days, but the apparent non-effect this has on opinion polls indicates just how tiny that liberal constituency actually is.

Taraf started printing in 2007 and primarily made a name for itself for its tough anti-military stance. For Turkish liberals at the time, this seemed like the most important battle to be won, and foreign observers routinely used adjectives like “courageous,” “plucky,” and “brave” to describe the paper’s anti-militarist crusade. Domestic critics denigrated it as the AKP’s convenient attack dog, something akin to the “useful idiot” liberal apologists who denied the existence of Lenin’s Soviet police-state terror in the 1910s and 20s. Taraf has been particularly instrumental in the Ergenekon and Balyoz coup plot investigations, claiming numerous scoops against the military in that case, (no matter that most of its anti-military material is widely understood to have been fed to it directly by the AKP government). As Jim Meyer described in a 2009 piece:

“Particularly with regard to the Ergenekon trial, Taraf has managed to frequently scoop the competition with reports (often leaked by the largely AK Party controlled national police force) which have embarrassed military officials […] ‘I don’t see journalistic achievement,’ said one experienced Turkish journalist. ‘They just gobbled up what the police intelligence was leaking them regarding Ergenekon.’”

Meyer’s analysis was written three and a half years ago, and since then the contradictions and evident absurdities in the coup plot cases – as well as the growing anti-democratic practices of the AKP government – have become more and more apparent. While Taraf still maintains its strong anti-military position, it has begun to abandon its previously timid approach to the ruling party and is now voicing tough criticism of various government tendencies. This became particularly clear in January, when lawyers for Prime Minister Erdoğan sued the paper’s editor Ahmet Altan for allegedly “[making] extremely deep insults with the intention of assaulting Erdoğan’s personal rights,” and pressed for 50,000 Turkish Liras in compensation. Evidently, the AKP government wants to keep Taraf on a short leash, but the paper’s continued criticism since then would suggest it has not yet been successful.

Meanwhile, on the same day as BirGün was observing Taraf’s apparent shift against the government, all media outlets were reporting on an upcoming AKP proposal to the Turkish parliament’s Constitution Conciliation Commission (which is currently attempting to put together a new national constitution). The Hürriyet Daily News reports that the proposed changes would “allow the government to limit press freedom in a variety of scenarios that include cases of ‘national security’ and ‘public morals.’”

Referring to the moves, Taraf’s July 14 front page headline story harshly criticised the AKP government for its “prohibitionist mentality.” It cited a 1976 European Court of Human Rights ruling, which stated that: “Freedom of expression […] is applicable not only to “information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.” Underneath the main headline, the article pointedly said: “we hope this ruling inspires the AKP.”

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