Peace talks are still ongoing between the Turkish state, representatives of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. It is likely that for any kind of peace to be secured they will have to go on for quite a while longer. Looking at the attitudes adopted by the Turkish media over the course of the “İmralı process” has been illuminating, particularly the reporting of the Jan. 17 funeral ceremonies in Diyarbakır of the three female Kurdish activists who were recently shot dead in Paris.

The government’s previous “Kurdish Opening” in 2009 came to an abrupt end after the controversy that followed the release of a group of PKK militants at the Habur border crossing and their welcoming back by huge crowds in Diyarbakır. Any comparable scenes carried the danger of enflaming Turkish nationalist sentiments and posed a risk to the latest dialogue process. Thus, in the lead up to the funerals most in the mainstream media were in agreement that they represented a significant test. On the morning of the ceremonies, dailies Vatan, Yeni Şafak, and Yeni Asya all featured front page headlines quoting the words of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying that the day would be a “Samimiyet sınavı,” or “Sincerity test.”

The ongoing process is extremely delicate. It’s easy to forget that although public support for the current PKK talks is significantly higher than it was in 2009, suspicion of the talks is still widespread. It was therefore interesting to observe how none of the major TV stations covered the ceremonies live in any detail on the day, despite the fact that they were attended by tens of thousands of people. As with much coverage of the Kurdish issue, (the Uludere/Roboski massacre in December 2011, for example), it is likely that this low key coverage had been “suggested” to the major media organizations by the government, acutely aware of the need to avoid scenes similar to those in Habur in 2009. Tellingly, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç had the following to say at a media event on Thursday: “The media’s support is so pleasing for us. I know and I see this support. … Eighty percent of media groups are lending their support. They are conducting positive broadcasts and contributing to the process. I hope this continues.” Still, in a column the next day titled “Peace is difficult with this media,” daily Vatan’s Rüşen Çakır had some critical things to say about this mentality:

“Television stations who didn’t show the ceremony yesterday failed the ‘sincerity test.’ In fact, they didn’t even sit the test … In the name of not making mistakes, or avoiding possible crises, or not annoying the government, they chose not to do anything at all … During the latest İmralı process, our media sees only one side as having to take steps – and all of these steps set according to what the government wishes – which itself sabotages the road to peace.”

In the event, Jan. 18’s newspapers exhaled an audible sigh of relief that the day passed without “provocation or sabotage” from either the mourners or the Turkish security forces. In contrast to the relative silence of the TV stations, the majority of the next day’s papers featured the funerals as front page headline stories, showing pictures of the crowds gathered in Diyarbakır and striking a noticeably optimistic tone. Many focused on a makeshift sign that one man was carrying at the ceremonies: “There is no winner from war; there is no loser from peace.

The front page of Milliyet on Jan. 18: ‘Diyarbakır said peace’

The front page of Milliyet on Jan. 18: ‘Diyarbakır said peace’

That the funerals passed peacefully was a relief not only for the government but also for the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which shares grassroots with the PKK. At the moment, both the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the BDP have a common interest in continuing the talks. For the process to come to a successful conclusion – still a long way off – this shared interest will need to persist for a while yet.


The hunger strikes of 682 Turkish prisoners are entering their 57th day. The way that they – and the broader issues related to them – are being reported by media outlets known to be close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) clearly reflects the direction that the government’s Kurdish policy has recently taken.

With the government’s “Kurdish initiative” apparently having run out of steam, the conflict between the Turkish security forces and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has become increasingly bloody over the last 12 months, and chances for a political solution seem to be ever more remote. The latest bloody incident  in south-eastern Turkey took place in the Şemdinli district of Hakkari province on Nov. 4, when a car bomb targeting a military vehicle killed 11-year-old boy Faris Demircan and wounded 26 others. Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the PKK is widely thought to be behind the blast.

On Nov. 5, the Gülen-affiliated Cihan news agency reported that pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) Hakkari deputy, Esat Canan, tried to visit the family of the deceased to offer his condolences, but was refused entry to the family home. However, no sources were referenced and no quotations on the incident from the family were included in the report. What’s more, no other news agencies mentioned this and local media in the area reported quite the opposite, saying that Canan had in fact been welcomed in to “share the pain.”

Those known to be close to the government, or the Gülen movement, were the only national newspapers to feature Cihan’s story. Zaman included it as their main front page story, under the headline: “Family of 11-year-old Faris respond to the BDP: ‘You killed our child, how dare you come here’”.

Star included the same story on its front page, alongside news claiming that local traders in Şemdinli were closed in protest against the incident. The headline read: “Şemdinli’s shutters closed against the PKK.”

Strongly Islamist daily Yeni Şafak carried a front page headline declaring: “BDP driven from the door”, included under which was a subtle subtitle: “God damn them.” Popular pro-government daily Sabah also featured the same story at the bottom of its front page under the headline: “You murdered my son.”

BDP deputy Canan has written a formal letter of complaint – which I have read (anybody interested can contact me) – to Cihan news agency about its “baseless” report. In the letter, he says that his visit was in fact accepted by the family of the deceased, and he claims that Cihan’s news was written without any examination of the area and without any correspondent on the ground. He demands a retraction and an apology, warning that he will exercise his full legal rights to pursue the case if he does not receive one.

I came back to Istanbul this week, after spending three weeks at home in the UK. On my return I was greeted by airport newsstands full of papers with headlines focusing on the funerals of the nine “martyrs” killed in the recent terror attacks in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. Of course, I kept vaguely up-to-date with events while I was away, but the contrast between Turkey – currently in one of those periodic bouts of nationalist hysteria that always follow clashes with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – and Britain – which is still basking in the fuzzy, generous, inclusive afterglow of the London Olympics – was nevertheless striking.

Although there are serious doubts as to whether the PKK was actually responsible for this latest attack, the Turkish press did not hesitate in reverting to predictable form. For a flavour of the current mood, here is a selection of newspaper front pages from Thursday (Aug. 23), focusing on the previous day’s funerals.

Like many others, nationalist daily Sözcü showed a photo from one of the funerals, with a coffin wrapped in the Turkish flag in the foreground. The funeral was attended by various state heavyweights, including the leaders of all three main political parties, all of whom were shown in mourning in front of the coffin. Above this, a larger picture showed the face of one-year-old Almina Melisa, whose mother and father were both killed in the Gaziantep bomb. Addressing the political figures in the picture below, the headline challenged: “Almina, will she forgive you?”

Islamist daily Yeni Şafak’s main photo also showed the same funeral. The headline above read: “70 million people on the same side”.

Daily Akşam: “You cannot divide”

Finally, here is the reassuring front page of tabloid daily Güneş’s Friday edition. The headline referred to counter operations conducted against the PKK by the Turkish military in the southeastern province of Hakkari: “30 Traitors Killed”.

Last week (June 19) saw the latest clashes between the Turkish security forces and the militants of the outlawed terror organisation the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey’s southeast. Eight soldiers were killed and 16 wounded in a pre-dawn raid by the PKK on military border posts in the Dağlıca district of Hakkari province, on the border with Iraq. The attack prompted the familiar public outrage, and the military duly responded, launching a massive operation in the mountains of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Over the following days the Turkish media reported with unconcealed satisfaction the rising numbers of PKK members “neutralized” in counter strikes.

The PKK always intensifies its operations during the spring and summer months, so these clashes should not come as a surprise. This time, however, the sense of disappointment among many observers (as opposed to the anger of most) was palpable. Just a week before, efforts toward a diplomatic solution seemed to be gaining genuine momentum, with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) approaching a rare agreement with the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) on the issue. The agreement was for the formation of an inter-party parliamentary commission to chart the course for a meaningful, long-term, political solution to a conflict that has cost close to 50,000 lives over the past 20 years. Such moves now seem hopelessly out of touch with the overwhelming public mood of anger and bloodlust.

The life and death story of one of the eight killed soldiers received particular attention in a number of Turkish news sources. The June 22 edition of daily Cumhuriyet published a short piece titled, “Martyr İsa’s story is Turkey’s reality,” referring to İsa Sayın, who died in the latest clashes. The article described the life and death story of Sayın as illustrating what it called “all of the contradictions and pain of Turkey’s last thirty years.” Sayın was born in 1991 in Ulukaya village, in the largely Kurdish southeastern province of Muş. During the early 1990s the conflict between the Turkish army and the PKK was at its most fierce, with the former conducting a scorched earth policy across the southeast, emptying and burning down villages suspected of supporting PKK militants. Sayın’s family house was burned down in 1993, and his family was forced to move away and settle in the city of Mersin on the Mediterranean coast. There, his father worked for construction firms in order to look after his six children. Sayın remained illiterate, and he had to do irregular work alongside his father in construction until he was conscripted to do his 15 months’ compulsory military service. It was during his military service that Sayın was posted to Hakkari province, where he was killed in last week’s attacks. In a further twist, it later emerged that the Sayın family is related to the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) Muş parliamentary representative, Sırrı Sakik.

With regard to a long term solution to the problem, there can’t be many grounds for optimism. When news filters through of every fallen “martyr” in the Turkish army, the sheer virulence of the nationalist reaction somehow always comes as a surprise. The country becomes increasingly divided; the hand of the doves becoming weaker and weaker against that of the hawks. It’s difficult to see how an inclusive, broader definition of “Turkishness” can gain traction when such a stubborn die has already been cast. Of course, the Kurdish question crosses national boundaries, and its future will likely be most affected by the rapidly changing landscapes in northern Iraq and northern Syria. It seems increasingly naive to tie a comprehensive solution to simply granting Kurds the right to broadcast in their own language on Turkish television, or for Turkish schools to teach Kurdish as a first language where the demand exists. Language is only one symbol of a more fundamental and profound sense among so many, that they are living in a country essentially “not their own.”

Perhaps it’s best to end with a quotation from İsa Sayın’s mother, appreciating just how distant the solution that she demands may well be:

“Weapons, blood, and pain will lead nowhere. Ask mothers about this pain, they know their children’s pain best. The blood has to stop running. We want a solution to the problem. The armed one in the mountains is a Kurd, and my dead son is also a Kurd. Brother is killing brother. We want the state to solve this problem.”

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