When a suicide bomber blew up nearly 40 people in central Ankara, a tweet started doing the rounds that the bomber had worked for the left-wing anti-government daily Cumhuriyet.
It caused a frenzy and the newspaper had to issue a statement denying this: “If the country’s rulers and its official-voluntary informants used a fraction of the determination they currently employ to blacken the name of our newspaper, arrest our editors and attack our writers to instead find the suicide bombers who reach all the way to the capital, then we would be living in a peaceful country.”
The tweets suggested that the Ankara bomber used a Cumhuriyet press card to avoid detection and hid his vehicle full of explosives in the newspaper’s car park. Anything is possible in today’s Turkey, but given the current climate of witch-hunts against opposition media figures, I find the most incredible claim of all to be the press pass – even the most incompetent terrorist would know that a Cumhuriyet press card would be a red flag for state security, not a decoy. A truck laden with explosives is probably neither here nor there.
The tweet only serves to confirm that Cumhuriyet is now firmly in the firing line, as the newspaper editorial says: “There now exist… plans to blacken our name, to take over, incite attacks and assassinate.”
Just weeks before the bombing, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been busy violently dismissing a Constitutional Court decision that ordered the release of Cumhuriyet editor Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul on the grounds that their rights were violated when they were controversially arrested for allegedly stealing state secrets. Erdogan had vowed that they would pay for claiming to prove that Turkey sent arms to Syria. The pair still face trial on March 25.
And after the methodical destruction of Turkey’s independent media continued last month when fawning Erdogan-friendly trustees were appointed to turn the best-selling opposition newspaper Zaman into the government’s very own Pravda, Star newspaper, yet another Erdogan mouthpiece, predicted that Cumhuriyet would be next.
Erdogan’s rages against the Constitutional Court, which saved his party from closure in 2008 and which is peopled mainly by appointees of Erdogan’s former Justice and Development Party (AK) colleague, the amenable ex-president Abdullah Gul, shows how far the president has travelled away from moderation. So do comments by Huseyin Celik, a former AK education minister, who echoed Cumhuriyet in a statement on his own website: “It changes very little which organization lit the flame, what matters is to ask ourselves what we were doing while they were committing this atrocity.”
On recent form, Erdogan will be asking himself no such thing, but most likely planning how to expand the government’s stable of broken and tamed media. It’s a plan that dates back at least to 2009, when he enabled the takeover of the cash-strapped Sabah group by a crony business. Several news organisations are now in the fold or wiped out. Tactics included selling off media groups without proper tendering procedures and audacious on-air raids late last year on outlets owned by Ipek Koza group. As well as Zaman, the anti-government news agency Cihan was also neutered.
Stand up and be counted
Although numerous decent journalists also lost jobs in the mix, many institutions and individuals that fell to the Erdogan juggernaut had an Achilles' heel that helped dampen public reaction (Cumhuriyet would not be one of these). Zaman, a big newspaper that began to shine with the rise of AK and then opposed it when Erdogan broke with the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, had few genuine secularist admirers because it was seen as a Gulen mouthpiece. The Ipek-Koza group was also Gulen-linked. Media outlets lately punished via crackdowns on tax irregularities had not fretted too much in the past about blatantly supporting state aims in return for the conglomerates that owned them being given a big bite at the cherry of government contracts.
None of this excuses Erdogan’s anti-media drive. What is happening in the Turkish media now is appalling. Reporters Without Borders places the country 149th out of 180 countries on the issue of press freedom. Veteran writers now unable to find outlets for themselves say the situation is even worse than in the years following Turkey’s many, bloody coups.
But what’s problematic here is that, unfortunately, what one might call proper journalism did not particularly flourish before Erdogan came along. In the recent past the military used to hold great sway over the news in Turkey – personally I thought people weren’t nearly exercised enough about that; now Erdogan is replacing this with more overt government control. Opposition media that does remain can be as biased and angry as those it condemns. When author and journalist Ahmet Altan became founding editor of the combative Taraf newspaper in the early Erdogan years, his thesis was that the country would never advance without robust media.
In this bleak and imperfect world, however, there are tiny glimmers of hope. Some good columnists survive and even openly criticize the government in mainstream newspapers such as Hurriyet. Many good journalists have found homes online, away from the control of media bosses with government contracts to preserve. They write on sites such as T24, Al Monitor, Diken, Haberdar, and Karar. Admittedly, some remain linked to political figures – Karar, for instance, is believed to be close to AK Party founders disillusioned by Erdogan’s behaviour. Some of these are moving or thinking of moving to print where they might finally reach beyond the converted to whom they currently preach.
If any of these outlets can help foster a sense of real, critical journalism that properly holds the government to account, instead of the one-sided bluster that has gone before, they will have done a great service for the country.