Ankara: Yet More Bad News For Turkish Press


Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey
Dec 19 2012

by Mustafa Akyol

Last weekend, unexpected news hit Turkey’s headlines: The top
executives of Taraf, an ultra-liberal daily that has fearlessly bashed
both the old Kemalist establishment and the new AKP government,
resigned. Ahmet Altan, the editor-in-chief of the paper, along
with Yasemin Congar, the second to Altan in rank, announced their
departure. Soon, they were also followed by NeÅ~_e Duzel, a senior
correspondent, and Murat Belge, a senior columnist.

To see why this is more than just any ordinary job change in the
Turkish media, we should take a closer look at Taraf. This paper
was established only five years ago by Altan, Congar and a bunch
of idealist liberals and leftists with a self-declared mission:
helping Turkey’s democratic transformation by relentlessly going
after the powers that be. In those initial years, Taraf especially
defied the Turkish military, with a bravado that shocked most Turks,
who had seen this sinister institution as untouchable.

Taraf also became very instrumental in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer
cases, which both put alleged coup plots on trial. Many of the
documents that were used by the prosecutors in these cases were first
printed in Taraf – before they were apparently “leaked” to the paper
by the police.

During this initial period, which probably went on until 2011, Taraf
was very popular among pro-AKP conservatives as well. But as the
military’s power waned, and the AKP government consolidated itself,
Taraf’s arrows turned toward the “new establishment.” Especially
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan became the paper’s new target, as its
headlines and editorials began to bash him every day as the new threat
to freedom.

If you ask me, I think Taraf was basically right in its stances, but
also often too emotional, clumsy and subjective. In the “coup cases,”
Taraf overlooked the excesses of the prosecution, such as prolonged
arrests of too many suspects, and also dismissed some the legitimate
suspicions about the military documents that it published. With
regards to the AKP, Taraf again was too heated in my view, as not
only the authoritarian stances of the AKP but also its legitimate
moral conservatism became the paper’s target. (No wonder even some
Taraf writers, such as Yıldıray Ogur, disagreed with Altan on the
latter’s passionate anti-AKP stance.)

All in all, however, Taraf has certainly been an important contribution
to Turkish democracy. Its opinion pages broke many taboos, ranging
from Ataturk’s historical reality to the true fate of Ottoman
Armenians. Moreover, in its five-year-long short history, it proved
to be an independent paper that bowed to no one.

Therefore, the departure of Altan and the other leading names of
the paper is concerning. The announced reason is that the paper is
in a dire economic situation, and that Altan and others have become
“tired and frustrated.” In his farewell column, Altan wrote that he
is going back to his “real job,” which is writing novels. We will
see what the others will do, and what Taraf will do without them,
in the months to come.

Nevertheless, many people inevitably suspect that pressure from the
AKP government might have led the owner of Taraf, BaÅ~_ar Aslan, to
ask for the withdrawal of his most anti-AKP pens. I have no evidence to
support or dismiss this claim, but I am sure that it will be credible
for many. And I am also sure that the earthquake in Taraf will be yet
another bad sign for the future of independent journalism in Turkey.