Gutsy Turkish Newspaper Challenges Army’s Dominance


Globe and Mail
Sept 17 2009

Istanbul — Special to The Globe and Mail Last updated on Wednesday,
Sep. 16, 2009 08:35PM EDT

.Last month, four Turkish families with men in the army received the
dreaded news: "Your sons have fallen as martyrs while on operation."

Ten days after the four young men were buried, the public was able
to read the eyewitness accounts in a small and remarkable newspaper
called Taraf. Ibrahim Ozturk, 25, had fallen asleep while on guard
duty. After he was found out, his commanding officer pulled the
pin of a grenade and handed it to him. He was ordered to hold it,
with its safety lever depressed, until he understood the importance
of staying awake. Mr. Ozturk scavenged for a spare pin. He pleaded
with his superior. After less than an hour the grenade exploded in
his hand, killing him and three other conscripts. Forced to admit
there had been a cover-up, the army charged the officer with murder.

This is the latest army scandal publicized by Taraf. In less than two
years, Taraf has exposed a dozen cases of cover-up, national security
negligence, and plans of a coup d’etat.

"Taraf is a democratic newspaper. They put it all out on the table,"
says Taraf reader Ali Ergul, 28.

Before Taraf, the army enjoyed almost no journalistic scrutiny. The
need for favour and credit has always made it too risky for
big-business media bosses to oppose the military.

Kaya Balaban, 56, reads Taraf because of what he saw during the
military coups in 1960 and 1980. "I read Taraf to reassure myself,"
he says. "Resisting a foreign occupation is easier than resisting
your own soldiers."

Taraf is run from the top floor of a bookstore in Istanbul by
best-selling novelist Ahmet Altan, 60, and veteran correspondent
Yasemin Congar, 42.

"It is easy to explain to Westerners. We’re not radicals, we’re plain
old democrats. … We want the military out of politics. We want
Turkey to be able to talk about its own history openly," says Congar.

Gradually, it seems, they are getting what they want. Fundamental
change is happening in Turkey. Civilians are forcing the army to
relinquish its decades-long control of the state. Earlier this summer,
the ruling AK party passed a ground-breaking law allowing military
personnel to be tried in civilian courts. Last week, the government
announced its rapprochement with Armenia, pledging that historians
would investigate the Armenian genocide, a proposal that is anathema
to the military. And the Kurdish issue – Turkey and the Kurdistan
Workers’ Party (PKK) have been exchanging blows for decades – is to
officially become a matter of social policy, no longer considered just
terrorism to be fought by the army. Taraf’s reporting has contributed
to all this.

"Taraf has been quite influential in shaping the agenda," says Suat
Kiniklioglu, an AK party member of parliament. But the army remains
powerful, and it has always been dangerous to cross them; rumours
and slander can be deadly in Turkey.

"This means you become a real target. It could mean that you
get killed," says Amberin Zaman, the Turkey correspondent for The
Economist and a Taraf columnist. Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink
was assassinated in 2007 after his conviction by a Turkish court for
"denigrating Turkishness" made him a target of fascists.

"We do not sit and calculate risk. Ever," says Congar. Taraf has
printed a headline in Kurdish, the first national newspaper to do
so. Against convention, it has chosen not to distinguish between
"martyrs" and "terrorists" when describing casualties in Turkey’s
war with the PKK. And it published satellite photos showing the army
allowed, whether by negligence or complicity, a PKK attack on an army
outpost in late 2008, which killed 17 soldiers.

There have been consequences. Taraf is fighting more than 100 court
cases. Ahmet Altan has been charged more than 50 times, including for
affirming the Armenian genocide on Taraf’s front page. Congar has
"five or six" cases still open against her. "If you are in Turkey,
and if you want to say the truth, you will be charged," says Altan.

"We are used to it," says Congar, who was first charged when she
was 19 years old. Bianet, a media monitor group here, reported that
in April, May, and June of 2009, 57 journalists were put on trial
in Turkey. They estimate the actual number is more than three times
this. This week it was reported that Turkey refused to sign a press
freedom declaration issued by other European countries.

Since modern Turkey was established in 1923, the Turkish army has been
the centre of the Turkish state, guardian of the Turkish republic,
and defender of founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular ideals.

And they have had passionate support.

"Talking against the military was talking against everything that
was dear to this nation," explains Congar.

Still today, many Turks drape flags and images of Ataturk from their
balconies on national holidays. Ataturk’s image is used as Facebook
profile photos. His signature can be seen tattooed on shoulders.

Inevitably in Turkey, discussions of civilian control of the state
will turn to the spectre of Islam. Many Turks believe only a strong
military can prevent Islamists from taking over, and many also
believe muckraking around the army is part of an Islamic agenda. No
wonder there is so much rumour, often accepted as fact, that Taraf’s
coverage of the army is funded by Fethullah Gulen, leader of a large
and most influential Muslim movement, and usually considered secular
Turkey’s enemy number one. Both Taraf and the Gulen movement deny
any connection.

"Taraf is … not giving an easy ride to the military but it’s giving
an easy ride to political Islam," argues Esra Arsan, a professor of
journalism at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

Whatever the rumours, an important question for the future is whether,
once the generals’ retreat from the centre of the state is complete,
Taraf will go after the ascending civilian power as tenaciously as
it has the army.

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