When the liberal daily Taraf was launched some five years ago, it was presented as prime evidence of how much Turkey has moved forward. Staffed with muckraking journalists who were especially committed to exposing the misdeeds of Turkey's powerful military, the scrappy newspaper truly did break new ground, covering stories that most of the Turkish mainstream media stayed away from for fear of crossing the powers that be.
Five years later, Taraf might be put forward as prime evidence of how much Turkey is slipping backwards, particularly in terms of press freedom issues. On Dec. 14, Taraf's top two editors -- Ahmet Altan, a vocal critic of the government, and Yasemin Congar, as well as two leading columnists -- resigned from the newspaper, effectively stripping it of some of its most powerful voices. The reasons for the resignations were not immediately given, but they came at a time when Taraf was facing increasing pressure from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and some of its supporters after the newspaper started turning a critical eye towards how the government was managing Turkey's affairs.
Writing in Today's Zaman, veteran journalist and media observer Yavuz Baydar describes the role Taraf played in recent years:
Late last year, when Ankara was coming under severe attack for the growing number of journalists that were being jailed in Turkey, the government was able to call an unlikely witness in its defense: the press freedom watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists.
While press freedom advocates and government critics in Turkey put the number of jailed journalists in Turkey at the time at well over 70, CPJ, in its annual census of jailed journalists around the world, implausibly put the number at eight. The backlash to the group's report on Turkey was immediate and strong, strong enough that CPJ realized it needed to take a closer look at what's going in Turkey and issue a followup study.
That study was issued today, making it clear that CPJ got things quite wrong in last year's census. According to the group's new report (full disclosure: I was interviewed for the study), there are currently 76 journalists in jail in Turkey, making the country the world's leading jailer of journalists. From the report's summary:
The France-based media freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, has just issued an interesting brief expressing concern over what the group believes to be increasing pressure against journalists who are covering the Kurdish issue and the escalating conflict between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). From the report:
Pressure is mounting on journalists in eastern Turkey as the government intensifies its military offensive against the armed separatists of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an offensive that is spilling over into neighbouring countries.
As well as a spate of trials and cases of prolonged detention, journalists are now the target of government directives. Journalists who cover Kurdish issues critically continue to be accused of supporting the separatists by officials who cite the war on terror as their overriding imperative. And concern is growing that the government is trying to control coverage of its offensive.
Jailed for an interview?
The Turkish judicial system continues to treat the publication of interviews with PKK members as terrorist propaganda, even if they are accompanied by commentary that stops far short of praising the PKK.
Nese Düzel, a journalist with the liberal daily Taraf, and his editor, Adnan Demir, for example, are being prosecuted for two April 2010 reports containing interviews with former PKK leaders Zübeyir Aydar and Remzi Kartal. A prosecutor asked an Istanbul court on 14 October to sentence them to seven and a half years in prison. The next hearing in their trial is to be held on 9 December.
Prosecutors at the same court are preparing to try the journalist Ertugrul Mavioglu over a report in Radikal in October 2010 that contained an interview with Murat Karayilan, one of the leaders of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), regarded as PKK’s urban wing.
For the last few years, dark-haired news anchor Banu Guven was one of the main and most popular faces of Turkish news network NTV. This summer, soon after Turkey's June 12 parliamentary election, Guven was unexpectedly fired. The network has said little about why she was let go, but Guven claims it was because her bosses were worried that the airtime she wanted to give Kurdish activists and politicians in the run-up to the election might anger the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). According to Guven, her request to interview Leyla Zana, a popular candidate (and now MP) with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), was shot down. Meanwhile, another pre-election show she did with well-known Kurdish novelist and activist Vedat Turkeli, in which her guest praised the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and threw his support behind the BDP, has since been removed from NTV's online archives and appears to have further angered her bosses.
Guven has now issued an open letter to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accusing his government of fostering an environment that has forced media outlets to practice self-censorship if they want to stay alive. This accusation has been put forth before, mostly by members of Turkey's more secularist news organizations, but Guven is probably the most high-profile media figure to make the claim.
Stump speeches? Election promises? Party platforms? Forget about those boring old things. What really appear to be making a difference in how the upcoming Turkish parliamentary elections will turn out are surreptitiously recorded "sex tapes" that have caught some of Turkey's top politicians with literally their pants down.
The outcome of the June election is already a foregone conclusion, with most pollsters predicting that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will again cruise to an easy victory and hold on to a strong majority in the 550-seat Turkish parliament. The main opposition Republican Peoples' Party (CHP) is expected to do better than last time around, when it received around 20 percent of the vote, almost solely because the party was finally able to get rid of its long-term leader, Deniz Baykal, a year ago. Baykal, of course, was forced to resign after a mysterious video recording was posted online showing the 71-year-old and his (not much younger) former secretary engaged in some fairly tame hanky panky. It's not clear if the tape was a successfully executed inside job or a hit job that backfired, but either way, thanks to it the CHP has been able to execute a successful makeover (see this previous Eurasianet article for more on this).
Sila Sahin, a German-born Turkish actress, has made history by being the first Turkish woman to pose for the cover of Playboy. But her move has not been welcomed, both by her family and some Muslim hardliners.
The Berlin-based Sahin has said she posed for the German-edition of the magazine, "to show young Turkish women it's okay for you to live however you choose. Many of my countrymen think it's great that I can be so free. With the shoot I hoped to say to them that we do not necessarily have to live under these rules given to us."
But the photo spread has led her mother to cut off contact with her and concerns about what kind of pressure Sahin may face from cultural and religious conservatives within the large Turkish community in Germany. More details here. And writer Asra Q. Nomani takes a closer look at the significance of Sahin's Playboy photo and interview here.
The alleged murderer of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink has a new explanation for why he killed the writer: he was driven to commit the crime by headlines in the Turkish media. From Bianet:
At the second hearing of triggerman suspect Ogün Samast at the Juvenile High Criminal Court, Samast said that he was not guilty of killing journalist Hrant Dink but the headlines that called him a traitor. "Where are they now?" Samast asked.
Ogün Samast is the prime suspect of the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007. Dink was editor-in-chief of the Armenian Agos newspaper at the time. The hearing at the Juvenile Court in Gülhane (Istanbul) on Tuesday (5 April) was held under broad security measures in the court house and its environment.
Samast presented a letter he had written to the court at the Tuesday hearing. He wrote, "I am not guilty. Guilty are the headlines that showed Dink as a traitor. I removed the rubbish in front of me; now the ones who wrote those headlines should think. Where are they now, the ones who brought me that far? I would not even know the Agos newspaper. Today, I would sit down with Hrant Dink and talk to him".
Although Samast, who was 18 at the time of the killing, is the main suspect in the 2007 murder of Dink, it is charged that elements in Turkey's police and security forces were complicit in the act. Dink and his writings were frequent targets of Turkey's nationalist press and the journalist had also been convicted by a court for "insulting Turkishness."
The International Press Institute is highlighting a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) that claims that there are currently some 57 journalists jailed in Turkey -- more than any other country. From the IPI article:
The International Press Institute (IPI) today obtained a report from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) indicating that Turkey is currently holding at least 57 journalists in prison – apparently more than any other country.
The report followed an analysis of more than 70 journalists the OSCE conducted in conjunction with Erol Önderoğlu, editor-in-chief of the BIANET Independent Communications Network in Istanbul.
While Iran and China topped lists last December by reportedly jailing some 34 journalists each, Turkey, a candidate for membership in the European Union, has nearly doubled that number five months later, raising questions about the country’s commitment to freedom of the press and the legitimacy of its democratic image.
Some of the incarcerated journalists are awaiting trial on charges connected to the ongoing Ergenekon coup investigation (take a look at this previous post), but many of the jailed journalists are ones who have written about the Kurdish issue or work for pro-Kurdish media outlets and have been put behind bars through Turkey's anti-terrorism laws. According to the IPI reports, some 700-1000 more journalists are currently facing court proceedings that could put them in jail.
President Abdullah Gul certainly broke new ground when he became the first Turkish leader to set up his own Twitter stream. But a recent tweet by Gul created something of a stir online, leading to speculation that the President might be watching pirated films in the comfort of the presidential residence.
As the Hurriyet Daily News reports, on Saturday Gul sent out this update to his Twitter account: "“I watched ‘The King’s Speech’ with my wife. It is really a very good film … I suppose the film will be subject to many discussions and be awarded with many prizes.”
But as many of Gul's online followers noted, the Oscar-nominated film has yet to be released on DVD and has not even opened in theaters in Turkey. Did someone slip Gul a pirated copy of the film, some wondered?
Defending Gul, the director general of the Turkish body that oversees cinema and copyright issues, sent out a Tweet of his own, saying the President was provided with a "special copy" of the film at his request.
In recent years, there has a lot of talk about how Turkey has been charting a "Neo-Ottoman" course in its foreign policy, trying to capitalize on the history and legacy left behind by the Ottomans.
Now, a Turkish television show -- a kind of local version of the "The Tudors" that takes a look at one of the Ottoman sultans and his court -- is causing a major controversy in Turkey. From the Hurriyet Daily News:
A new TV soap has generated a massive reaction from conservative circles in Turkey, with claims that the Ottoman dynasty is portrayed in the show as both “indecent” and “hedonistic.”
The soap, titled “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (The Magnificent Century), is based on events that occurred during the reign of Süleyman I, also known as Suleyman the Magnificent.
Surviving heirs of the Ottoman dynasty and members of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, are among critics of the show.
Reactions started to flow in following the broadcast of the trailer, even before the first episode was aired on Jan. 5.
The Supreme Board of Radio and Television, or RTÜK, is reported to have received thousands of complaints, most of which focus on the Sultan’s alcohol consumption and activities in the harem with his concubines.
After the first episode was aired more criticism followed, with a number of people complaining the women were dressed in too western a style, and that some historical events were retold inaccurately.
Rumor has spread that a gay scene has been written into the script, which the producers of the show deny.