Handing its 10-month jail sentence to Turkish pianist Fazıl Say on April 15, the Istanbul court stated that Say was guilty of “denigrating the religious beliefs held by a section of society” and had thus violated Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). Although “blasphemy laws” still officially remain in many states, they are now almost completely dormant in most democracies. The rare prosecutions that are attempted based on them almost always fail, either because of sensible legal interpretation or the fact that a guilty verdict would clash with legally enshrined principles of freedom of expression.

Say’s prosecution was based on his retweeting of couplets attributed to medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam last year, including lines such as: “You say its rivers will flow with wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house? You say you will give two houris to each Muslim. Is the Garden of Eden a whorehouse?” He also posted a personal tweet, stating: “I don’t know whether you have noticed or not, but wherever there is a stupid person or a thief, they are believers in God. Is this a paradox?” However misguided Article 216 may be, there can be little doubt that Say deliberately intended to “denigrate the religious beliefs held by a section of society.” Of course, deliberate insult should never be criminalized, but as it is considered legitimate grounds for prosecution in Turkey it’s worth asking why cases aren’t regularly opened against material published in certain Turkish newspapers. The fact is that there are a number of Turkish dailies with considerable reputations for directing abuse at religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

Yeni Akit has a considerable track record of targeting respected journalists for aggressive and persistent smear campaigns, including Cengiz Çandar, Hasan Cemal, Ahmet Altan, and Amberin Zaman. It has even recently been waging a bizarre campaign against the “deviant spirituality” of yoga. Although it and fellow hard-line Islamist newspaper Milli Gazete (affiliated to the minor Felicity Party) have both been fined on numerous occasions for slander and libel, they have never to my knowledge been prosecuted for “insulting a section of society.” That may seem odd after considering the following examples, dredged up on their websites by a simple search of the words “Christian,” “Jew,” “Alevi,” and “homosexual”:

– Milli Gazete’s April 18 front page headline focused on the “scandal” that the EU was “making the Turkish state pay” the costs for lighting non-Muslim places of worship “such as churches and synagogues.”

– On the same front page, it was also disbelievingly reported that New Zealand had become the latest country to legalise gay marriage. The article was headlined, “Your destruction is near,” and was accompanied on the printed page by a picture of two fossilised victims from Pompeii.

– The same paper also carried a headline story in January warning about the dangers of “Zoroastrian missionaries” spreading “terrorist propaganda” in Turkey’s southeast.

– Again Milli Gazete, this time declaring as its Jan. 8 front page: “Here’s the Jewish mind.” The story was about Jewish religious jewellery being sold by a U.S.-based company, which donated some of its profits to the Israeli army.

Milli Gazete, Jan. 1, 2013: 'Here's the Jewish mind'

Milli Gazete, Jan. 8, 2013: ‘Here’s the Jewish mind’

– On the same day that Milli Gazete was warning about “the Jewish mind,” Yeni Akit reported news of an old church in the Black Sea province of Giresun making “Christian propaganda.” Despite the fact that the church had been converted into a library in 2001, the article bemoaned that crosses and Stars of David were still to be found inside the building, “blurring young minds.”

– Yeni Akit on Feb. 3: “Support for perverts from the CHP and BDP,” regarding attempts in January by opposition deputies to reform the law stating that “dirty” and “deviant” homosexuality is legitimate justification for expulsion from the Turkish military.

– Yeni Akit:The 19 Year Lie,” in which a host of slanderous claims were made about the massacre of over 30 Alevis in the central Anatolian town of Sivas in 1993.

On any given day you can open either Milli Gazete or Yeni Akit and be sure to find similar stories, written in the most unpleasant, insulting language. Should it really be surprising that Article 216 isn’t extended to these cases?

Even if the necessary sections of the Turkish penal code were reformed, they would still undoubtedly be liable to misuse through selective interpretation. However decent a country’s set of laws may be, and however enshrined they are in decent-sounding constitutions, problems generally come from the interpretation of those laws. If Article 216 was always applied as rigorously as it was against Say, then all the above examples would be investigated. In the end, the most important factor behind scandals such as the Say case is the mentality behind them, which is not something that can be transformed by a simple change in legal language.

Yet another international organisation has issued a report on Turkey’s dolorous press freedom record, with Amnesty International this week publishing “Decriminalize dissent: Time to deliver on the right to freedom of expression.”

The particular focus of this latest report is the “fourth package” of judicial reforms that was submitted to the Turkish parliament at the beginning of this month. The package follows a previous set of reforms that went into effect last July, and has been presented by the government as a move to deepen democracy and reduce the number of cases brought against Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). However, Amnesty says the package “fail[s] to make the necessary legislative amendments to bring national law in line with international human rights standards.” That conclusion is based on research including trial observations, the review of hundreds of criminal cases, and “interviews with civil society organizations, lawyers, academics, individuals under prosecution and public officials.”

A familiar charge sheet is presented by Amnesty regarding recent developments, including “the increasingly arbitrary use of anti-terrorism laws to prosecute legitimate activities including political speeches, critical writing, attendance of demonstrations and association with recognised political groups and organizations.”

The report continues:

“Government statements initially indicated that the ‘Fourth judicial package’ would seek to bring prosecutions of expression related offences in line with international human rights standards and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. However, the draft law, currently before Parliament does not go nearly far enough. It proposes amendments to five offences frequently used in ways that violate the right to freedom of expression. The proposals leave on the statute a number of laws that directly limit the right to freedom of expression that should be repealed entirely. Other offences that threaten the right to freedom of expression through their overly broad wording are not brought into line with international standards on the right to freedom of expression under the current proposals. If passed by Parliament in its present form, the ‘Fourth judicial package’ would represent another missed opportunity to deliver genuine human rights reform.”

Voting on articles in the fourth judicial package is expected to start in parliament next week. The full PDF of the Amnesty report can be accessed here.

There was plenty of crowing in Turkish newspapers over the weekend, following Friday’s official U.S.-brokered apology from Benjamin Netanyahu for Israel’s killing of nine Turkish citizens on board the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Below is a flavour of some of the less sophisticated front page reactions available on newsstands March 23.

A subtle combination of words and images here from the tabloid Posta. Headline: ‘You are great Turkey.’

A subtle combination of words and images here from the tabloid Posta. Headline: ‘You are great Turkey’

 

Yeni Şafak: ‘For the Gaza martyrs: We made them apologize’ (Spot the difference with Star from the same day: ‘He made them apologize’).

Yeni Şafak: ‘For the Gaza martyrs: We made them apologize’ (Compare with Star from the same day: ‘He made them apologize’)

 

Hürriyet: ‘Apology victory’

Hürriyet: ‘Apology victory’

 

Takvim: ‘Israel came to heel'

Takvim: ‘Israel came to heel’

 

And the view from the orthodox left, from March 25: ‘Kiss, make up, go to war’, referring to Obama’s pressuring of Netanyahu to apologize, helped by Turkey and Israel’s apparently similar perspectives on the Syrian civil war.

And the view from the orthodox left, March 25’s Sol: ‘Kiss, make up, go to war’, referring to Obama’s pressuring of Netanyahu to apologize, assisted by Turkey and Israel’s apparently similar perspectives on the Syrian civil war.

 

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.

milliyet_2013-02-28

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.

Having lead a government that has spent much of the last 10 years in a bitter tug-of-war for power with the military establishment, it has recently become clear that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now attempting to secure rapprochement with the Turkish armed forces. The latest indication came with his visit on Feb. 9 to the hospital bedside of retired general Ergin Saygun, whose 18-year prison sentence in the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) coup plot trial was suspended on Feb. 7 following a medical report. Saygun is now undergoing critical heart treatment in Istanbul.

The hospital visit was just the latest in a series of moves that indicate Erdoğan’s changed approach. In recent months, he has repeatedly expressed frustration at the long detention times of military officers and even at the alleged excesses in the ongoing Ergenekon coup plot investigation. Two weeks ago he complained in a live television interview: “There are currently 400 retired commissioned or non-commissioned officers. Most of them are detained … If the evidence is indisputable, give a verdict. If you consider hundreds of officers and the [former] chief of staff to be members of an illegal organization this would destroy the morale of the armed forces. How will these people be able to fight terrorism?” Indeed, with so many detained or facing trial, there have also been rumours of growing organisational chaos inside the armed forces due to the lack of staff; as many as a fifth of Turkey’s top military chiefs are currently languishing behind bars. (In an unfortunate gaff, one opposition deputy recently bemoaned the lack of serving generals currently available to conduct a military coup.)

The Fethullah Gülen religious movement (cemaat) is the strongest and most powerful advocate of the ongoing coup plot trials. As Dani Rodrik, a fierce critic of the Ergenekon/Balyoz cases, has written: “[Erdoğan’s] Gülenist allies … have been the key driving force behind the sham trials. It is Gülen’s disciples in the police, judiciary and media who have launched and stage-managed these trials and bear the lion’s share of responsibility.” Below the surface, it is therefore becoming clear that Erdoğan’s recent moves to normalise relations  with the military constitute the latest steps in the power struggle between himself and the cemaat. As a leader with impeccable political antennae, Erdoğan also probably recognises the political importance of “moving on” with the military. Despite all the reputational damage it has suffered over the last 10 years, the national armed forces still retain considerable loyalty among the Turkish public.

As the newspaper most closely affiliated with the Gülen movement, it is thus interesting to observe how daily Zaman is reporting Erdoğan’s search for a settlement. On the day after Erdoğan’s hospital visit to Saygun, the paper’s front page carried a picture of him standing at the former general’s bedside, with an innocuous story inside titled “Surprising visit to Ergin Saygun.” However, it is also worth noting that Zaman’s front page headline on the same day focused on the recent three-day summit of the (Gülen-affiliated) “Abant Platform,” which came out in strong support for Turkey’s continued EU membership negotiations. The piece mentioned the “hardening attitude” within the EU and unfair visa restrictions, but also included criticism of the recent public declarations of some Turkish officials, which it said “lead the way to opposition to EU membership among the public.” Erdoğan has been leading the charge in negative statements about the EU process in recent weeks, so Zaman’s emphasis was perhaps not without significance, hinting cryptically at the growing Gülen-Erdoğan split.

zaman_2013-02-10

Zaman headline Feb. 10: ‘Support to EU process from the Abant Platform’

 

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.

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.

Daily Zaman is often described as Turkey’s most read newspaper, with its circulation having recently tipped over the 1 million mark. It was therefore rather interesting to see a recent chart on medyatava.com indicating that this figure is made up almost entirely of subscribers, with only around 20,000 copies actually bought in shops every day.

This isn’t a complete surprise – for all its faults Zaman has never really been a “populist” newspaper, always self-consciously higher brow than the average fare on the Turkish newsstands. It’s pretty rare to see the local simitçi walking around Istanbul with a copy of Zaman tucked under his arm – at least in comparison with Sabah, Posta, Hürriyet, etc.

The high proportion of subscriptions can almost certainly be ascribed to Zaman’s links to the Fethullah Gülen religious movement (cemaat). Copies of the paper are delivered to most businesses/schools/individuals/hotels associated with the cemaat, which would account for the disproportionately high subscription number. As the “wikileaked” Stratfor intelligence agency cable explained back in 2009:

“FGC [Fethullah Gülen Community] businesses advertise heavily on FGC media, while FGC-owned media runs human interest stories and profiles of FGC sympathisers, businesses and schools. FGC members and sympathisers take holidays in FGC-owned hotels and shop at FGC-owned stores and invest in FGC financial institutions. Graduates of FGC cramming schools funded by FGC businesses often serve as teachers in FGC schools overseas. Finally, FGC media, funded by FGC businesses, reacts sharply to any criticism directed at Fethullah Gulen.”

A similar pattern can be observed at Today’s Zaman, the English-language arm of Zaman, which has 8,500 subscribers to just 1,900 sales.

***

While on the dull subject of newspaper circulation figures, it’s worth taking the opportunity to note that since last month’s shock resignations from Taraf, the paper has seen its circulation increase substantially. While Taraf had previously hovered around 50,000, this figure is now approaching close to 70,000. Whether or not the resignations were good from a journalistic perspective, they certainly seem to have made economic sense.

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.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has just released its annual report on the number of journalists imprisoned globally – a gloomy read. This year, the global tally reached its highest point since the CPJ began surveys in 1990, with a total of 232 individuals counted as being behind bars, an increase of 53 since 2011. Unsurprising to most in the country, Turkey tops the list this year – followed by Iran and China – with the CPJ counting 49 currently in Turkish prisons for their journalistic activity, (still lower than its last count of 61). A complete list featuring detailed accounts of all imprisoned journalists worldwide is available to view via the CPJ here, while a “path forward” for Turkey, drawn by CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, can be read here. The CPJ recently focused on the situation in Turkey in a detailed report released in October, which I wrote about on this blog at the time.

In Turkey, most of the newspapers hostile to the government included pieces on the report, with the reliably bellicose Sözcü referring ironically to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in its Nov. 12 front page headline: “THE MASTER BREAKS THE RECORD: Turkey is the world champion in imprisoned journalists.” Also tongue-in-cheek, daily Taraf dolefully headlined its article on the report: “Again we’re the world’s first!” However, news of the CPJ report was conspicuous by its absence in the Pollyannaish pro-government press – nowhere to be found in Zaman, Sabah, Bugün, Türkiye, Yeni Asya, Yeni Şafak, or Star. Bearing in mind the Doğan Group’s history with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, it is also perhaps worth mentioning that neither of its remaining Turkish-language titles, Hürriyet and Radikal, mentioned the report in their print versions either (although both did feature online articles).

Of course, the October CPJ report on Turkey was far more detailed than this latest one, which focused only on the global numbers of journalists in jail. Indeed, the real question of press freedom in the country is rather more complicated than simply a headline figure alone, as I have written before, both here and here. Still, however hypocritical many of the protests on the issue coming from the direction of newspapers like Sözcü are, the situation is certainly deplorable. Complicated as the issue may be, comparing the coverage (or non-coverage) of the CPJ report in the Turkish press at least gives some impression of quite how polarized the media in Turkey really is. Looking at some of the newspapers here, it’s often hard to believe they can be describing the same country.

It’s been a while since I last wrote about my favourite hard-line Islamic newspaper, Yeni Akit. It would be wrong to overemphasize Akit’s significance in the overall scheme of things, but a couple of its recent news items are certainly worth mentioning, and indicate that it might have rather more influence than many give it credit for(!)

On Nov. 22, Akit published a story headlined, “Immorality at High School,” containing photographs that it said showed teachers drinking alcohol with their students at a picnic. This photos were taken in the southern province of Antalya, (“known as a castle of the secularists,” according to the article), and were apparently uploaded to Facebook by one of the teachers. “It has been claimed that the teachers are members of the ‘Eğitim Sen’ union, which opposes the headscarf as well as classes on the Quran and the life of the Prophet,” Akit helpfully stated. The Antalya branch of the National Education Directorate opened an investigation into the 11 teachers upon the publishing of the story, but this was quickly dropped after it was established that the photos were in fact taken by a teacher at a family picnic three years ago, and that no students were present. Unbowed, on Dec. 2 Akit went on to publish a photo of a female teacher at the same Antalya school, part of a group at a bar celebrating a friends’ birthday (with glasses of beer on the table). “Do these photographs suit a teacher?” said the headline. However, rather than the Education Directorate setting up an inquiry, the teacher in question is now opening a legal case against Akit.

 

 

It’s worth mentioning these “photo scandals” because very recently Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used similarly tendentious photographs published in Akit to attack his political opponents. The pictures used by Erdoğan showed deputies of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) sitting around a table eating kebab, despite the fact that over 600 Kurdish prisoners were entering their 49th day on hunger fasts: “Lamb kebab for us, death fasts for you,” read Akit’s headline. On the same day (Oct. 30) Erdoğan told a meeting of his parliamentary party: “On one hand [they] are eating lamb kebab, on the other [they] are telling those in prison, ‘Die on hunger strike.’” In fact, it soon emerged that the photos had been taken two months before at the wedding of a BDP member in the southeastern province of Mardin.

Erdoğan’s harsh words got a lot of coverage at the time, (here’s the Reuters story on it), but the fact that his source was Yeni Akit obviously received rather less attention. Commentary suggesting that the prime minister is turning Turkey into an “Islamic state” is simplistic and misguided, (a piece in the Wall Street Journal last month claimed that he was “ramming Shariah law into practice.”), but it can’t be a good sign that he’s turning to Yeni Akit for rhetorical fodder to use against his opponents.

In the wake of the Nov. 21 ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, there has been much talk of the changing power balances in the Middle East. The leading role played by Egypt and its new president, Mohamed Morsi, in brokering the ceasefire is being interpreted by many as Egypt’s reintroduction as a major regional player. Meanwhile, the crisis was another litmus test for the “rising Turkey” thesis, and Turkey’s apparent marginalization during the process seems to have once again exposed the gap between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s ambitious rhetoric and the reality. While diplomacy to secure a ceasefire was still ongoing, Tim Arango wrote in The New York Times:

“Turkey’s stature in the Middle East has soared in recent years as it became a vocal defender of Palestinian rights and an outspoken critic of Israel and pursued a foreign policy whose intent was to become a decisive power in regional affairs. But as Gaza and Israel were once again shooting at each other, Turkey found that it had to take a back seat to Egypt on the stage of high diplomacy … Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of international politics at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, [says]: ‘Turkey is pretty much left with a position to support what Egypt foresees, but nothing more.’”

In a similar piece, Foreign Policy described “all the hype about Turkey’s aspirations to be a regional power broker” as “overblown”:

“They embraced the principles, themes, and language of anti-Israeli sentiment so common in the Arab world, but without any nuance that would allow them to continue to play in the Arab-Israeli game. The Egyptian, Jordanian, Qatari, and even Saudi governments, for example, have a long history of engaging in very public criticism of Israel, but have always managed to keep lines of communication open to manage regional crises and look out for their interests. Not so the Turks who seemed to relish burning bridges with the Israelis.”

In the Turkish press, Nov. 23’s Taraf weighed up the new regional balances, considering those who gained and those who lost from the conflict. It placed Turkey in the “Loser’s Club,” under a headline saying: “Egypt in, Turkey out”: “The closing of all dialogue channels with Israel has been paid for diplomatically. According to many foreign observers, by only keeping ties with Egypt, Turkey has lost much of its persuasiveness in such issues.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, other pro-government newspapers remained fairly quiet on the issue. Only Kerim Balcı put a brave face on it in Zaman, arguing that Egypt’s mediator role was more natural in an issue like Israel-Palestine:

“Yes, Turkey should wish to take part in efforts to solve any clashes that occur in the region, and indeed the world. However, in this zeal, other international actors should never be left out of the circuit. On the issue of Hamas, Egypt’s entry to the circuit is not a virtue, it’s a duty.”

These words might be more convincing if Turkey hadn’t already made such a big play of being a potential mediator, particularly in conflicts such as that between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Conservative Islamist daily Yeni Şafak seems to be offering its readers a comforting fictional parallel universe. Alongside the requisite headline story about Israel’s “eight-day long massacre,” its Nov. 23 front page featured a box titled “Thank you, Turkey,” focusing on some marginal quotes from Hamas leader Khaled Mashal thanking the efforts of Turkish officials. It went further the next day, boldly stating in a similar front page box: “Without Turkey it wouldn’t have happened,” referring to the ceasefire process.

Meanwhile, just a day after being widely praised for his role in the ceasefire, Egyptian President Morsi was being criticized from all sides for his domestic move to assume sweeping new powers, leading to violent clashes in central Cairo. The rapid shift from praise to condemnation was striking. Indeed, while Egypt may – in Foreign Policy’s phrase – have taken over from Turkey as the Middle East’s latest “it” country, it has quickly discovered that this is not an easy role to play.

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