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The dust has almost settled after the fallout from daily Milliyet’s controversial publication of the “İmralı leaks.” The paper’s reporting of leaked details of the meeting between imprisoned PKK head Abdullah Öcalan and a parliamentary delegation shook the media agenda two weeks ago, and was widely condemned by government officials as an attempt to “sabotage” the ongoing peace process. In fact, the episode has not had this effect, but it has managed to expose the fragile state of media freedom in Turkey once again – it’s regretful that such bold government criticism of the media has become increasingly familiar of late.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led the reactions from the front, repeatedly singling out Milliyet in the days following the leaks. “If that’s how you’re doing your journalism, shame on you! The media will say [the same thing] again: The prime minister is attacking us. But whoever tries to spoil the process in the media is against me and my government. There cannot be limitless freedom,” he said, before calling on the media only to report “in the national interest.” Of course, given Erdoğan’s past record on such matters it’s not surprising to hear him once again hitting out at media coverage that he considers inconvenient. However, the apparent emotion behind the outbursts on this occasion is probably related to the fact that his personal political destiny depends to a large extent on the success of the current peace talks.

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Milliyet’s front page on Feb. 28, announcing the leaked details of the İmralı island prison meeting between Abdullah Öcalan and a parliamentary delegation from the BDP.

Rumours circulated that sackings and resignations from Milliyet would follow the leaks, but editor-in-chief Derya Sazak wrote a robust defense on the Monday following Erdoğan’s words: “If the story is accurate, which it is, we print it. We do not take the prime minister’s words upon us.” Nevertheless, the criticism evidently had an effect, as veteran writer Hasan Pulur’s column did not appear on the same day, and it was also widely reported that the paper’s owner wanted government critics Can Dündar and Hasan Cemal to be removed on the prime minister’s order. Indeed, Cemal has not appeared in Milliyet for two weeks since the İmralı leaks, although no official announcement has been made. Dündar and Cemal are perhaps surprising names for Erdoğan to target, as – despite often being critical of the ruling AKP – both have expressed their support for its current peace process.

Although many government-supporting voices in the media unsurprisingly joined Erdoğan in condemning Milliyet’s “sabotage” attempts, there were many others defending the principle of media independence. In her daily Habertürk column, The Economist’s Turkey correspondent Amberin Zaman described Milliyet’s responsibility to print the İmralı meeting details as being a journalistic duty in the public interest:

“A journalist’s job is to find the truth and then inform the public; to protect the citizen from the state … By publishing the İmralı minutes, did Milliyet give Turkey’s enemies advantageous operational information? No. Did it put the sources’ lives at risk? No. Was sharing the talks between Öcalan and the BDP something that would injure the national interest? No. In the end, Milliyet was only doing journalism.”

In an interview with daily Akşam, Alper Görmüş – the editor-in-chief of political journal Nokta when it was closed down under military pressure in 2007 – also said Milliyet was right to print the leaked minutes, stating that he too would have published them if he was in the same situation.

Meanwhile, the International Press Institute issued a statement condemning Erdoğan’s comments and warning about the troubled state of media freedom in Turkey:

“The principle criterion of journalism is honest reporting. The fact that no party has refuted Milliyet’s story on the ‘Imrali transcripts’ and that almost all of Turkey’s newspapers quoted the story the following day show that it was true … The public has been informed truthfully about a process that it has an interest in learning about. This is honest and proper journalism …

“The media has no mission to side with the political power. It should stand by the truth. A contribution to the process of a solution can only be realized by writing the truth and the facts, not by hiding them or by exercising self-censorship.

“Indeed, governing a country and practicing journalism are different things. In a country where those who govern try to teach journalists how to do their job and where journalists attempt to govern, it cannot be possible for democracy to stand on its feet.”

A thoughtful response to the events also came from Today’s Zaman’s Yavuz Baydar, who again returned to the effect of media ownership structures on press freedom in Turkey – one of the most crucial (but less discussed) aspects of the issue:

“Jail and detention have been the focus with regards to Turkey, but the real threat to the media remains (under an old, well-known dark shadow of the power) owner-induced censorship and self-censorship, including being banned from writing on specific subjects.

“Whether one denies it or not, ownership issues dominate the freedom and independence of our media today. If we in emerging democracies need to defend both of these issues, we need new ownership models.”

In the same paper, Orhan Kemal Cengiz bemoaned the more immediate issue of direct government pressure on the media with respect to Milliyet’s İmralı leaks:

“Yes, it is true; the publishing of these leaked notes has damaged the peace process … But it is a level of damage which is absolutely nothing when compared to the damage that would occur to our democracy and freedoms if our media suddenly starts censuring itself out of fear from ‘what will the government say?’ every time it encounters a newsworthy and important document it wants to print.”

Actually, the situation is rather more urgent than Cengiz suggests. The fact is that the damage that “would” come from self-censorship has already been occurring for quite some time.

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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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