News paper Taraf began publishing in November 2007. I remember it very well. I arrived in Turkey in December 2006, and when Taraf was first published we sometimes used it in Turkish language class. The writing in the paper was grammatically not too complicated, and there was another journalist in language class too, so we sometimes picked Taraf articles to practice our reading skills. Only later did I gradually begin to understand the place of Taraf in Turkish media.
This sounds like the start of a requiem for a paper, and in a way it is. Even though Taraf (Turkish for ‘Side’) is still available at the news stand, it probably won’t ever again be what it used to be. this week, editor in chief and most important columnist Ahmet Altan resigned, together with Yasemin Congar, the second most important journalist working there. Soon, a few other writers decided to leave the paper as well.
Taraf wanted to takes sides in Turkey’s political landscape, against the old Kemalist elites who controlled the country via state institutions, and who basically blocked democratic progress. Taraf aimed at relentlessly attacking the power of the army, which still held sway over Turkish politics, as was again shown that very year (read earlier article of mine about that here). They were very successful at that, mainly by publishing and writing about classified army documents that were leaked to the paper. Without Taraf, the whole Ergenekon case (here’s a search for articles about that on this site) might never have existed, because they were the ones revealing the (still alleged) coup plans. Not any paper would have dared what Taraf did.
Funded ‘from abroad’
The time seemed right for it: the conservative AKP had been in power since 2002, and the party also strived to diminish the armed forces’ limitless power. It soon lead to speculations that Taraf was only there to support the government, and even that they were funded ‘from abroad’, which meant by the Gülen movement.
These last allegations were always denied, and in any case I don’t believe Gülen was behind it. I mean, the Gülen movement has serious money. If they funded Taraf they were definitely too stingy: Taraf writers often worked for very low wages, the paper made no money, hardly had any ads (which would have been a way for Gülen-related companies to fund the paper) and its founder reportedly lost money in pursuing his mission to establish Turkey’s bravest paper.
Why Altan and Congar resigned isn’t totally clear. There is speculation about AKP pressure. Ever since the army has been more or less confined to the baracks, with the Ergenekon trials almost coming to an end, Taraf has increasingly aimed its arrows at the AKP. The AKP has developed into being the new threat to democracy, as the army used to be. Examples of it are Erdogan’s Sultanist tendencies, the serious problems with press freedom and with the lack of independence of the judiciary, which is more and more falling into the AKP’s hands. The AKP would somehow have pressured Taraf, and now the main actors at the paper have had enough of it.
Saying goodbye in style
Altan, however, didn’t write anything about that in his last column for the paper. Considering everything he has bravely written in the last couple of years, I guess revealing intense AKP pressure against the paper would have been saying goodbye in style. That he didn’t, doesn’t really prove anything, so I guess for some time we’ll be in the dark about what is really behind this. Does he really want to just get back to book writing, as he wrote in his last column? And if so, why did Yasemin Congar also resign, and famous political scientist and columnist Murat Belge?
Anyway, I think the ‘end’ of Taraf is a loss for the Turkish media landscape. I have never been ‘pro’ or ‘against’ Taraf. I found the paper brave, but I look at it as the outsider that I am, and try to define it’s place in Turkey’s media landscape.
Taraf sold some 50,000 copies a week, about as much as the paper at exactly the other end of the spectrum, leftist nationalist, strongly Kemalist and pro-army Cumhuriyet, basically representing the ideology Taraf targeted. These two are comparible in another aspect too: they are both not in the hands of big companies that use papers for their commercial interests, but independently financed papers, based on ideology. To make a comparison with mainstream papers that are owned by big conglomerates and that don’t have any principles: tabloid paper Posta sells 450,000 a week, left-leaning Millyet some 170,000, Hurriyet 425,000.
Sign of the times
I find it interesting to compare Cumhuriyet and Taraf, because they together reveal something about developments in Turkey. Cumhuriyet has for a long time been important and influencial, but lost it’s significance and lots of readers because of being very dogmatic and because of a total lack of anticipating changes in society. The very changes that made it possible for Taraf to start, and to be small but nevertheless very influential. Taraf got the sign of the times, so to speak, Cumhuriyet lost it. So if Turkey apparently still has a place for Cumhuriyet, then it definitely must have a place for Taraf as well. Even more so for the latter, I would say, since they have been the voice of a new group in Turkish society, where Cumhuriyet is the voice of the Turkey that used to be.
That Taraf is in fact now dead, shows that the timing was not as perfect as it seemed to be five years ago. Turkish society wasn’t ready yet. Or it was, shortly, and its enlightenment and the space it provided for liberalism and freedom of opinion for very unwelcome opinions, has gone. Only if Taraf manages to not only be on sale but also continues to practice daring journalism and get on the nerves of the powers that be, I will stand corrected.