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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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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent comments that Turkey could give up its EU membership bid and instead pursue membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) are still reverberating in much of the Turkish media. Speaking Jan. 25 on TV station 24TV, Erdoğan said: “The EU does not want to include a Muslim country … Of course, if things go so poorly then, as a prime minister of 75 million people, you seek other paths … The Shanghai Five is better, much stronger.” Last year, Erdoğan had said something similar after a diplomatic visit to Moscow: “I said to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, ‘You tease us, saying “What is Turkey doing in the EU?” Now I’m teasing you: include us in the Shanghai Five, and we’ll forget about the EU.’”

The “Shanghai Five” was created by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1996 in an attempt to counter U.S. influence in Asia, and was later joined by Uzbekistan and renamed the SCO in 2001. It has been described as “a vehicle for human rights violations” by the International Federation for Human Rights. Erdoğan’s latest pronouncements on the group were immediately picked up by much of the Turkish commentariat as significant indications of Turkey’s shifting priorities. In Radikal, columnist Cengiz Candar wrote that the prime minister had dropped a “geopolitical bomb.” Hürriyet’s Sedat Ergin has so far spent three days worrying over the remarks, writing that Erdoğan’s words amounted to “one of the most significant foreign policy moves since he took office 10 years ago, maybe the most important.”

For me, the way these latest statements were reported merely highlighted once again the unhealthy intensity with which the Turkish media hangs on every single word uttered by the prime minister. The smallest pronouncement can be seized upon to set the agenda and send the media into a tailspin. It’s a little discussed symptom of a wider (and more discussed) problem – the increasing concentration of power in one pair of hands.

This is the pattern of how an address or press conference given by Erdoğan is typically reflected in the Turkish media: it is broadcast uninterrupted by every major television news station; the words are transcribed and posted immediately on internet news portals, with the only journalistic interjection in each paragraph being “the prime minister said”; the next day’s newspapers feature prominent news stories on the speech, perhaps as the front page headline; finally, the chorus of daily columnists set to work dissecting whatever the prime minister has decided should be the subject of the moment. As Fehmi Koru wrote in Star on Jan. 29: “Erdoğan is a master at forcing an issue, bluffing and occupying others with his own agenda … We have not yet seen one of the opposition parties able to force the country to debate a single topic. They jump into the agendas set by the head or members of the ruling party.” The prime minister is a master at manipulating how news is covered, and the producers of that news coverage are often more than happy to be manipulated.

This week’s episode of the BBC’s Start the Week, where the discussion centred around George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” brought the issue into even sharper relief for me. In the programme, Phil Collins, one time speechwriter for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, spoke about how he was always acutely aware when writing speeches of the low level of coverage that any public address by a prime minister could today expect to receive in the U.K. press. “Once upon a time your whole speech would be printed verbatim in The Times the next day, but that’s not the case anymore … You’re talking into an atmosphere in which you’re only going to get six seconds on the evening news, whether you like it or not,” he said. This seems to be the inverse of the Turkish problem: symptomatic of a corrosively cynical British public, disengaged from the political process and instinctively suspicious about the public utterances of any elected official.

Of course, there are many such cynics in Turkey, but they are little represented in the conventional large media corporations.

On Monday (Oct. 22), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a detailed report on the state of press freedom in Turkey, under the gloomy title: “Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis – The Dark Days of Jailing Journalists and Criminalizing Dissent.” Although it seems like reports on the subject are released every month, this one received a huge amount of attention, both domestically and internationally. It describes the numerous instances of restrictions on media freedom, citing the familiar examples of the Ergenekon case, the endless prosecutions of journalists writing on Kurdish matters, the increasingly widespread practices of intimidation and self-censorship, as well as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s rising intolerance of dissent.

Bloomberg published a sensible commentary on the same day that the CPJ report was released:

“The committee had come under fire for reporting lower estimates of the number of jailed journalists than other human rights organizations. Turkey’s government has long maintained that only a handful of the journalists were charged with offenses related to their jobs, and because the CPJ hadn’t read all the indictments, it had erred on the side of caution.

“Now it has read the indictments and determined that 61 of the reporters and editors in detention are there because of things they wrote or said in the course of their work. In letters accompanying the report, the Turkish government disputes that characterization and asserts that it is striving to balance the need to prevent ‘the praising of violence and terrorist propaganda, and the need to expand freedom of speech.’

“What’s becoming all too clear during the Justice and Development Party’s third term in office is that despite its claims that the government is now liberalizing press laws and continuing the country’s march toward a European-style democracy, the opposite is happening. …

“Instead of fixing the legal system, the government has used it to repress opponents and intimidate the media. The “insult” laws, as well as the special anti-terrorism courts and laws, should be repealed. They are not worthy of a modern democracy, and they shouldn’t be a model for anyone.”

The report was widely covered in the Turkish media. The Oct. 23 edition of daily Taraf featured the report as its front page headline. It included an interview with Ragıp Zarakolu, a legendary figure in Turkish publishing, who has long written and published bravely on subjects that many others wouldn’t touch. He has spent a significant amount of time in prison over the years for things written or published, and he had some predictably doleful things to say:

“The fact that Turkey is found on these kinds of lists saddens me greatly. Turkey has to go beyond this, but in order to do this a change in mentality is necessary … In the existing system the state’s interests are always seen as more important than the citizen’s interests. For this reason, I don’t believe any changes can come in the end without a process of change in mentality. …

“I’ve been writing in the Kurdish press for 20 years. I witnessed the killing of a 72-year-old editor. Such things aren’t experienced any more. But should we be thankful simply for the fact that we’re not killed, or like Uğur Mumcu we’re not assassinated? Turkey is currently at the end of a 10 year process. But despite constant reforms and improvements being spoken of for 10 years, journalists are still in jail for political reasons, and there are still people who have been in prison for 30 years for political reasons. We have to examine this.”

While it’s imperative to identify the areas in which the current government has attacked press freedom, it’s also important to identify the deeper structural problems undermining freedom of expression in Turkey, too. (I touched on the issue a couple of months ago on this blog.) Also included in the CPJ report is an interview with journalist Yavuz Baydar, in which he discusses some of these problems:

“While the rules of the game in the media landscape remain unchanged, unreformed, what changes are the actors, new proprietors. Turkey’s media owners are – like drug addicts – dependent on the powers in Ankara because they are in all sorts of businesses, need approvals for growth and investments, etc., and therefore keep their media outlets either as weapons for extortion or, at best, at the service of governments. …

“The media owners of these outlets acting as ‘the coalition of the willing’ that openly act submissively to the government and security bureaucracy. I can only refer to a key meeting between the PM and all the media proprietors last autumn, during which media owners went as far as proposing themselves to the PM that they can build a “censor commission” among themselves, to be chaired by a cabinet minister. The PM declined the offer, but the message was taken well. In the case of Uludere, where 34 Kurdish smugglers were bombed to death due to a tragic mistake, there was a full blackout in that media for 17 hours while the news flow was instant and heavy in social media. This pattern of blocking is now the norm.”

A related piece by Baydar, called “Another Gloomy Report,” was published in Today’s Zaman on Oct. 21:

“The greatest source of censorship and increasing self-censorship today [is] the ‘unholy alliance’ between the proprietors of big media groups and the powers in Ankara – a deal that connects mutual greed in terms of money and propaganda. This [will] continue to pollute the climate of good journalism, and even if the government resolved the issue of ‘jailed journalists’ it would leave journalism under huge pressure …

“Turkey’s media, vibrant, diverse, still bold, keen on struggling for its independence, will remain easy prey for those with money and political power.”

Nevertheless, the most immediate threat to freedom of expression still comes directly from the government. Ali Özkaya, a lawyer for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was quoted in daily Akşam on Oct. 23, and his words should be alarming to any sentient observer:

“We have to underline that cases we’ve opened against press have been quite a deterrent; the wording of columnists has noticeably changed especially since 2003. Reporters and columnists do not exceed the dose when making criticisms anymore; insulting comments or columns have been reduced to minimum.”

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held its key congress on Sunday (Sept. 30), the slogan of which was “Büyük Millet, Büyük Güç, Hedef 2023” (Great Nation, Great Strength, Target 2023). Throughout his emotional two-and-a-half hour speech, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in full neo-Ottoman mode. He told the 10,000 delegates packed into the Ankara arena that the government was following the same path as Sultan Mehmet II (the conqueror of Constantinople) and Selim I (“The Grim,” who expanded Ottoman territories to the east during the 16th century). He even went so far as to declare – tongue only half in cheek – that the AKP’s new target was 2071, linking the party back to the first Turkish Anatolian state-builders of the 11th century, 2071 being the 1,000th anniversary of Seljuk Turkish leader Alp Arslan’s entry into Anatolia.

It was a speech high in stirring rhetoric. The day after, government supporting newspapers fawned over the “renewal” and “refreshing” emphasis of a new “ustalık” (mastership) era. Daily Sabah focused on what it called the embracing, inclusive nature of Erdoğan’s speech and his words on the Kurdish issue: “Let’s draw a new roadmap together.” Zaman’s front page headline enthusiastically quoted a line from Erdoğan’s speech: “Come, let’s open a new page, let’s say ‘no to terror.’”

The contentious presence of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional leader Massoud Barzani at the congress was rather less trumpeted by Sabah and Zaman. He even gave a speech to the delegates, but the announcer in the arena refrained from using the word “Kurdistan” when introducing him. Indeed, rather than Barzani, it was Erdoğan’s words on the Kurds that received most attention in the pro-government press. This reminded me of one of Nuray Mert’s recent columns in the Hürriyet Daily News:

“The idea of the Ottoman Empire has induced a nostalgic longing for the days when Turkish sultans ruled diverse people in vast lands. For Ottomanists, the idea of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic haven for diverse cultures and populations is rather misleading, since the basic idea has always been to recall the times when diverse populations lived under ‘Turkish rule.’”

The conspicuously Islamic nature of the congress was also much discussed in the Turkish press – both by those approving and those dissenting. Beside its headline declaring “Great Strength Manifesto,” Islamist daily Yeni Şafak featured an admiring front page box quoting Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, controversially (or perhaps not) invited to speak at the event: “‘You are not just the leader of Turkey, but also the leader of the Islamic world,’ Meshaal said, receiving extended applause from the crowd.” Indeed, when announced to the audience Mashaal received some of the loudest cheers of the day, (the EU dignitary who was introduced after him didn’t stand a chance!)

Liberal daily Taraf agreed that the congress constituted a Turkish-Islamic “minifesto,” but struck a rather more sceptical tone: “There was a strong Turkish and Muslim emphasis, a mouse with its face turned to the East was born,” (in Turkish, “a mouse was born” means that something underwhelming took place). The paper also noted plaintively that Erdoğan had failed to mention the European Union even once during his speech.

Meanwhile, seven national newspapers were refused accreditation to attend: Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Evrensel, Birgün, Aydınlık, Yeniçağ, and Özgür Gündem. These publications have diverse sympathies: from left to right wing, from Turkish to Kurdish nationalism. The only thing shared by all is antipathy towards the government.

In response, Monday’s Cumhuriyet included a front page editorial titled “From Cumhuriyet to Public Opinion,” which said some unsurprisingly harsh things:

“Established six months after the founding of the Turkish Republic, our newspaper has been published for 88 years. During periods in the past when democracy has been suspended by the ruling powers our newspaper has been closed down, but outside of this we have always published under the principles of freedom of the press, in the name of people’s right to know. In 21st century Turkey, our newspaper is now exposed to censorship by the ruling powers.

“We will not stay quiet in the face of the anti-democratic implementations applied against us that violate both the constitution and the law.”

The piece went on to detail two constitutional and legal articles that it alleges the congress ban violated: Article no. 69 of the Turkish constitution, which states that internal political party activities, arrangements, and workings must not run counter to the principles of democracy; and Article no. 93 of the Law on Political Parties, which states that decisions taken and actions performed by party central administrations and affiliated groups must not run counter to the principles of democracy.

The International Press Institute’s Turkish National Committee issued a statement about the issue on the day of the AKP Congress, on behalf of the Freedom for Journalists Platform, an umbrella group representing local and national media organisations in Turkey:

“The news that reporters and journalists from some press organs are not allowed to enter the AK Party’s Congress is very worrying.

“Monitoring this historical event of the ruling government party on the spot and transferring it to its readers and viewers are primary duties of news media.

“We have previously protested the accreditation limitations at other institutions. But now, it is very disappointing that the same accreditation is being applied by a political party whose existence depends on democracy.”

I’ve been meaning to write something about press freedom in Turkey with reference to daily newspaper Sözcü for quite a while. Then, a couple of days ago, I caught sight of the back page of the paper’s Sept. 4 edition and, like a gift, my primary material was there waiting for me.

The page carried the headline “Turkey’s daily sunshade,” and sarcastically described itself in the top corner as “the kind of journalism that Tayyip wants.” This was in reference to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent request for the Turkish media “not to exaggerate terror incidents.” The mock stories written underneath therefore contained nothing but praise for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and all its wonderful achievements. One was about how the monster of inflation had been miraculously defeated, another was about how Istanbul’s chronic traffic problem had been eradicated (by the way, I can tell you from bitter experience that it hasn’t), another featured a mother who had happily heeded Erdoğan’s advice that all women should give birth to “at least three children,” another described how Syrian refugees had started naming their new born babies “Tayyip” in honour of the heroic Turkish PM.

In fact, the page was relatively mild compared to the populist tub-thumping Sözcü (“spokesman” or “mouthpiece” in English) usually serves up. Its front page typically features some kind of outraged headline about the latest treachery committed by betrayers of the Turkish nation. A short, choleric editorial in the bottom left corner is included every day under the subtle title “Tokmak” (“hammer” or “mallet” in English – apt enough), invariably fuming about some latest disgrace and usually pointing the finger directly at the AKP government. The tone does not get much higher throughout the remaining 19 pages. Recently, the paper has been having almost daily seizures about the government’s Syria policy and its backing for the anti-Assad opposition. These are mostly prompted by fears about how such a policy may facilitate some kind of autonomous Kurdish region stretching from northern Syria to northern Iraq, and conceivably into southeastern Turkey – anathema to the kind of nationalist gallery that Sözcü plays to.

As far as circulation figures go, Sözcü has certainly been one of the undeniable success stories in the Turkish newspaper roster over the last couple of years. When it started printing just over five years ago, it sold around 60,000 copies. This figure has risen steadily ever since, and the paper recently announced it had hit national sales figures of 300,000, making it the fifth-highest selling daily newspaper in the country.

With regard to the state of freedom of expression in today’s Turkey, Sözcü is certainly an interesting phenomenon to consider. Surely, in contrast to the many recent suggestions that freedom of expression is under attack in the country, doesn’t the existence of such a paper indicate that the range of perspectives available on Turkish newsstands is healthily broad? Well, not exactly – the condition of the Turkish media has more fundamental problems that must be taken into account.

In its annual Press Freedom Index for 2011, released in January this year, the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders, or RSF) ranked Turkey 148th out of 179 countries worldwide, down from 138th in 2010. This was the fifth year in succession that Turkey had slipped down the RSF rankings. Over 100 Turkish journalists are currently in jail, a figure higher than China. The number of journalists sacked or sued for what they have written, reported, or even drawn, climbs by the month, and many journalists and editors freely admit to practicing self-censorship to avoid trouble.

One of the most significant and much-discussed episodes took place in September 2009, when Doğan Publishing, then the largest media group in Turkey, was hit with over $3.2 billion in fines for tax irregularities by the Turkish treasury (equivalent to more than four fifths of the combined market value of Doğan Holding and Doğan Publishing).The hugely excessive size of the fines seemed to suggest government disapproval of the group’s newspapers’ reporting of an embezzlement scandal at the “Deniz Feneri” Islamic charity in Germany. It was the biggest charity corruption case in German history, and Doğan newspapers alleged that billions of dollars raised by the charity had somehow found their way into AKP coffers back in Turkey. After the fines were levied, Doğan’s media outlets significantly toned down their reporting of the scandal, as well as their broader criticism of the government. A number of their anti-AKP columnists were sacked, and many of their newspapers were sold off in order to pay the exorbitant fine, which was subsequently lessened after appeal.

There are numerous other examples of similarly shady processes being undertaken by the government. Their effectiveness can perhaps be attributed to one of the more fundamental flaws in the country’s media landscape. As Svante E. Cornell wrote in Turkey Analyst back in January 2010, this is the fact that the Turkish media is overly dominated by large holding companies:

“As a result, major newspapers and television channels are owned by firms with broad and substantial economic interests. For many, winning government tenders is a chief objective. This means that owners of media outlets seldom see these as their main preoccupation, but often as assets they can use for leverage – either by using their assets to pressure incumbents to win favors – or by appeasing the powers that be.”

Those organs wishing to maintain good business relations with the government must toe the line. However, there are still many who simply don’t care about such things, and Sözcü is perhaps the most prominent print example of that today. The case of Emin Çolaşan is a neat symbolic example to consider here. Çolaşan used to write for daily Hürriyet – part of the Doğan media empire – before he was fired in 2007 after 22 years’ service. His sacking was believed to be because of his fierce criticism of the AKP government. Within weeks of leaving Hürriyet, Çolaşan was picked up by Sözcü, where he now writes a reliably bellicose daily column. Evidently, Sözcü doesn’t have quite the same concerns about offending the AKP government that Hürriyet now has.

Still, there is far more to a free and healthy press than simply having a few columnists in certain newspapers feeling free to throw as many tantrums about the government as they want. A well-functioning Fourth Estate should, through rigorous investigative reporting, effectively hold whatever government is in power to account. Unfortunately, there is precious little evidence of this in Turkey’s press landscape. In an excellent piece on “The Deteriorating State of Media Freedom in Turkey,” again in Turkey Analyst, Gareth Jenkins has described this parlous situation thus:

“Unlike in many other countries, Turkish newspapers are dominated not by reporters but by columnists. With a few notable exceptions, journalistic standards in Turkey have always been very low. Little attempt is made to substantiate news reports, with the result that rumor and gossip are often given equal status to undeniable facts … The situation is arguably even worse amongst the columnists, most of whom merely react to something they have heard or read elsewhere in the media without trying to investigate or assess its veracity. The result is that most columnists generate more sound than sense, using invective rather than reasoning to make their voices heard.

… Nor does Turkey have a tradition of investigative journalism. What passes for investigative journalism – and which today mostly appears in book form rather than in newspapers or on television – tends to consist of a compendium of reports and rumors selected to support the author’s preconceptions; and is riddled with the same lack of substantiation that characterizes newspaper and television news reports.”

Sözcü, perhaps unsurprisingly, exemplifies suchshallow prioritizing of reactive opinion over genuinely thoughtful, reflective, investigative writing. Over 50 percent of its “news” pages are filled with belligerent opinion columns from the paper’s popular commentators.

Some might take the overwhelming predominance of highly critical “rent-a-mouths” in almost all Turkish newspapers as proof of the Turkish media’s bustling vitality. However, while Sözcü may get away with its fierce daily anti-AKP invective, that’s a million miles away from contributing to a genuinely effective Fourth Estate. Ultimately, the latter’s development is of critical importance to the future direction of Turkish democracy.

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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