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Opinion: Turkey – That’s the Press, Baby! | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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“That’s the press, baby, and there is nothing you can do about it! Nothing!” This is how Humphrey Bogart, playing Ed Hutcheson, a newspaper editor, puts down the diabolical gang leader who is running the biggest corruption racket in the city. The final issue of a paper that the head of the syndicate has bought in order to silence forever is going to the press with a full story exposing his racket that includes murder.

The 1952 film “Deadline – U.S.A”, perhaps Hollywood’s best on the role of the press, is woven around a simple theme: as long as even a single newspaper has the courage to take on the big and the powerful, the whole society can feel safe.

There was, however, one unstated caveat: the newspaper should not have a hidden agenda that links it to an alternative bloc of illicit interests. In other words, to fight the impure you need to be pure yourself.

I was reminded of the old film the other day when the Turkish government decided to seize control of the Istanbul daily “Zaman ” (Time) with the shopworn excuse that the paper was “undermining national security.”

Within 24 hours a newspaper that had become the harshest critic of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent times was transformed into his most insipid sycophant. I was also reminded of the 1980s when as a member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI) I spent a great deal of time in Turkey attending trials of journalists imprisoned by the military regime of General Kenan Evren.

Needless to say the brutal takeover of “Zaman ” must have upset every journalist and defenders of press freedom across the globe. But, and sadly in this case there is a but, what if the owners and, to some extent, the staff of “Zaman ” were also involved in its assassination, albeit unwittingly?

In its campaign against the military regime in the 1980s, the Turkish press, or at least the segment of it that was prepared to fight, was asking for nothing but the right to do a proper job of reporting and commenting on what was going on in the country. The journalists who were sent to prison didn’t have personal axes to grind.

In some cases, they faced charges that were plain scandalous. For example, Nadir Nadi, the publisher of the daily “Cumhuriyet” (Republic) was charged with “sedition” because the daily had used the word “Kurd” in one of its editorials. In other cases, journalists were arrested for expressing legitimate political views within the framework of the Constitution. For example, Nazli Ilicak of the daily “Tercuman” (Interpretation), founded in 1986, was tried for criticizing the military’s use of secularism as an excuse for dictatorship.

In every case, though they did have distinct positions on key issues, the newspapers harassed by the authorities were not “submarines” for any political party or interest group. A “submarine” is a publication that pretends to be non-partisan but is, in fact, a propaganda tool for parties or political factions that, at times, could even use it in black-arts’ style operations.

Under the Turkish Constitution, it is, of course, quite legitimate for political parties or movements to have their own publications. “Zaman”, for example, was launched by Islamist groups at a time that the ruling establishment, backed by the military, denied them space for self-expression and power-sharing.

Islamist leaders such as Necmettin Erbakan, who became Prime Minister for a brief spell, and Erdogan , who was swept into the mayoralty of Istanbul, the nation’s most populous city, owed part of their success to support from “Zaman” and kindred pro-Islamist publications.

Despite some feisty reporting and fiery editorials, “Zaman” hardly shook off its identity as the mouthpiece of the Islamist movement in Turkey. In some cases, it waged indirect war against secularist newspapers such as “Cumhuriyet” and “Hurriyet” (Freedom). Its narrative about the possibility of re-activating Turkey’s “Islamic personality” within its secularist political framework achieved its first electoral victory when the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Erdogan, won the general election in 2002 and formed the first Islamist administration since the one led by Adnan Menderes in 1960.

Erdogan and AKP who went on to win three more general elections owed a great deal to the “Hizmet” (Service) movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a self-styled Islamic scholar-cum-clan chief who now lives in exile in Pennsylvania, the United States. “Zaman” was one of several publications that people linked to “Hizmet”, created to promote their vision of a re-Islamicized Turkey.

For years, “Zaman” either ignored or obliquely justified Erdogan’s slow but steady drift towards autocratic rule. In an insidious manner, the paper added an Islamic sauce to every dish, using against supporters of a secular system some of the same dirty tricks that secularists had used against Islamists in the 1980s. When journalists were sent to prison because they had criticized the AKP regime’s Islamist drift, the paper looked the other way.
Then came what was bound to happen: Gulen fell out with Erdogan, allegedly over disputes among their respective backers in the business community.

The paper transformed itself from a pro-government organ to one critical of every move that Erdogan made. Using evidence procured, not to say stolen, from the government by Hizmet’s network, the paper exposed cases of corruption and double-dealing designed to sap Erdogan’s moral authority. It was obvious that, bitten hard, the AKP would bite back. And it did, by, in effect, killing “Zaman.”

What has happened to “Zaman” is in no way justifiable. Nor could one endorse the purge of Hizmet supporters taking place at all levels of the Turkish state apparatus. However, what we are witnessing is a power struggle within the same constituency and, for a good part, fought over who gets a bigger share of the cake.

“Zaman” played a major role in promoting the idea that religion would unite Turkey at a time it needed national unity to meet the challenge of modernization in a dangerous world. However, the paper’s experience shows that, rather than uniting the Turks, religion has divided them as never before. This, of course, isn’t the fault of religion as such. The responsibility goes to those who transform religion into an ideology in pursuit of political power. In that context, the end always justifies the means, including dirty tricks by newspapers and revenge take-over of them by governments.