Dries Lesage is van het ‘Grensinstituut voor Internationale Studies’. Dat klinkt relevanter dan wat hij eigenlijk is, namelijk expert op het gebied van internationale belastingen. Hij mocht maandagavond aanschuiven bij Nieuwsuur om zijn licht te laten schijnen op ontwikkelingen in noordoost-Syrië, waar hij nog nooit een voet aan de grond heeft gezet en waar hij niet deskundig in is. Hij zat er om de Turkse kant van het verhaal uit te leggen, vernam ik uit betrouwbare bron, en er kwamen ook Koerden aan het woord. Ik was maandagavond bij de presentatie van het boek van Brenda Stoter en ik ken die Lesage, dus ik weigerde aanvankelijk de uitzending dinsdagochtend terug te kijken maar na een frisse douche en twee koffie durfde ik het aan.
I have published on Frontaal Naakt before, but as of 1 October 2018, I will regulary contribute to this independent Dutch website. Frontaal Naakt relentlessly takes a principled stance against racism, seksism, sloppy journalism and other evils of our times.
The columns will appear in English on my channel at ByLine – soon!
In my first contribution, I give some advice to young journalists who are about to enter the profession. That’s not boring, that’s sharp!
(from the column)
Zelf doe ik nooit aan zelfcensuur. Bijna dertig jaar in de journalistiek maar ik heb nog nooit iets niet geschreven, een woord niet gebruikt of een interview niet gedaan omdat ik bang was te worden weggezet als wat dan ook. En geloof me, als journalist in Turkije en Koerdistan heb ik reden te over gehad dat wél te doen. Continue reading at Frontaal Naakt!
‘In my view’, President Gül tweeted, ‘in principal no freedom should be curbed. Everybody who wants to should be able to surf the internet freely’. That was on 28 May 2011. It may give some people hope that Gül will use his veto right to stop the new internet law from taking effect. But I doubt it.
The bill passed parliament last Wednesday and caused a wave of criticism both inside Turkey and abroad. The biggest problems with the new measures: bureaucrats can now block access to sites without a court order (and you need to go to court to try to get the decision reversed), they can block access to specific pages on sites, several techniques to get around the new regulations will be illegal, and last but not least: the privacy of internet users is violated because data about online activities of web users can be stored for two years and be made available to the authorities upon request.
Human Rights Watch has now started a campaign to urge President Gül to use his veto to stop the law coming into effect. Of course it is worth a try, but I don’t think Gül will do so. He has been called upon to use his veto before, for example to not sign the bill that bans medical professionals in certain circumstances from helping wounded people (read: protestors), and earlier a bill to re-organize the education system. He never did.
Gül has only rarely used his veto power since he became president in 2007, and mostly over technicalities concerning laws that don’t arouse any public debate, like a law concerning rules for accountants and financial consultants in 2008, and in 2009 a bill about social security. The last time he reportedly used it was last December, when he rejected proposals PM Erdogan made for a cabinet reshuffle and Erdogan had to come up with new names for several posts – but this veto is unconfirmed and doesn’t concern any law.
But how then can the president not veto a law that restricts internet freedom when he so openly stated he thinks everybody should be able to surf the internet freely? First, it seems the president doesn’t use his veto power on matters of principle but more on technicalities. But second, it could be that he actually thinks this new law does not curb any freedoms, and in fact enhances freedoms.
Adultery in secret
At least, that is how the government explains the bill. It has stressed several times that the bill is not increasing censorship and violating privacy, but on the contrary is protecting people’s privacy. How? Access to sites and pages can be blocked if people’s privacy is being violated. An example often used (not by the government though) is the infamous ‘sex tapes’ that caused the fall of several politicians from opposition parties CHP and MHP in 2010 and 2011. If you explain the law that way, you can claim to be pro freedom on one hand and at the same time introduce restrictions.
Not that I am convinced, by the way: it’s like the AKP government standing up for people’s right to commit adultery in secret. And one of the first bans is already in force: access was blocked to a YouTube video allegedly broadcasting a conversation of the Prime Minister’s daughter negotiating the purchase of a villa. Many people don’t doubt the law will be used to try to prevent leaking of all kinds of videos and phone conversations that get the government into trouble, and even articles.
Turkey is a country of mind-boggling contradictions. I have seen many in the years since I have been here. Leftists being ultra nationalists. Feminists being against broader rights for women. Democrats being in favour of military coups. And now possibly freedom advocates approving serious internet restrictions. To fathom the line of thinking of these people is an intriguing way to understand Turkey better.
A colleague told me that a few months ago. ‘Kurds just ain’t sexy’, she said. As I knew she couldn’t possibly be talking about the attractiveness of Kurds, I figured she must be meaning it in a journalistic sense. Sexy being sellable. That when you propose a story about Kurds to any media, they immediately jump on you. Kurds! Yes, we want a story about Kurds!
I can see where she is coming from. She is talking about five, ten, fifteen years ago. The news about Kurds in Turkey was dominated by the war between the state and the PKK. It was dragging on. Foreign media would only want a story about it if there was something actually changing in the conflict (read an earlier post about that here), if more than maybe twenty people died in one attack, or when it affected tourism.
Headlines when PKK leader Öcalan was arrested. Headlines when violence flared up. Headlines about a bomb on the beach. And occasionally a story about human rights abuses, but since they happen everywhere in the world, they have to be exceptional to get more than a few lines.
Some 40 million world-wide
The same counts for the Kurds in Iraq. They were interesting mostly when related to the Gulf wars and the American presence in Iraq. The Kurds in Iraqi perspective, just as the Kurds in Turkey were mostly written about in a Turkish context. Despite being a people, a nation of some 40 million world-wide, the stories about Kurds were always put in the perspective of the countries the Kurdish lands are divided over.
And those in Iran and Syria? Oh, there are Kurds there too?
I understand my colleague, but I don’t agree with her. The Kurds are becoming more sexy every day. Developments in every country in the region where Kurds live contribute to that, but I prefer to see it from a Kurdish perspective. Don’t see the Kurds only as citizens of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but as a nation in their own right, with their own political, social and economic dynamics. Who are no longer subject to whatever happens in their countries, but increasingly help define the present and future of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, and even the wider region.
They help define the course Turkey is taking, now that their thirty year old struggle has lead to peace negotiations between their most important leader, Öcalan, and the government. Not that the process is going anywhere, but the Kurdish issue is talked about more openly than ever, the Kurds are confident and really don’t need an armed struggle anymore to demand and take their rights.
The Kurds in Iraq have had autonomy for years now and have managed to keep their lands very peaceful compared to the rest of the country. The economic boom in Iraqi Kurdistan is redefining the Iraqi economy as a whole, and reshaping foreign relations from both the Kurdish capital Hewler and the national capital Baghdad.
The Syrian Kurds have decided not to take sides in the civil war in Syria, but instead carve out autonomy for themselves. With a regional administration, a swearing in ceremony in the three languages that are spoken in Syrian Kurdistan and elections to be planned before the summer, they set a democratic example for the Middle East.
The developments together are more than just the product of its component parts. They accumulate into a dynamic that will make the Kurds stronger, more influential and confident. Intriguing in itself, and who knows how this will affect the Kurds in Iran, for now the most invisible group?
Can it get any sexier? And lucky me: I am going to report it, now that I have finished my book about the Kurdish issue in Turkey, which I explain by a thorough investigation into the Uludere/Roboski massacre of 28 December 2011. (It will be published in the Netherlands around 20 February, and you can pre order it here. I am working on English and Turkish and possibly Kurdish translations and will keep you posted on that.)
Once a week
As the only foreign correspondent based in the unofficial capital of the Kurds, Diyarbakir, I have started to interest media worldwide in stories about the Kurds, and convincing them how sexy they are.
First, I got the opportunity to report with my own page on the American journalism site Beaconreader. I will publish a story about Kurds and (the whole of!) Kurdistan at least once a week, and you can subscribe to that for only $5 per month. The first story is an interview with the famous Turkish sociologist and expert on Kurds Ismail Besikci, which I link to the Syria conference that started this week in Geneva, to which the Kurds were not invited.
Currently I am working on my first story about the Kurdish issue in Turkey for an English language paper – I will publish it on this site too, stay tuned. I have plans to write for more international media, and am expanding my network to that end now. It looks promising! And starting next week, I will publish a weekly column on the new Turkish website Diken (Thorn), and also report for them from the Kurdish regions of Turkey.
The Kurds ain’t sexy? We’ll see about that!
How did the lipstick affair make it into the news? Did Turkish Airlines issue a press release in which it stated that as of now red lipstick is forbidden for stewardesses? No, they reacted only after the discussion started. Probably it was the group of stewardesses that protested the ban by putting pics of themselves with red lips online. Fact is, lipstick is on the political agenda. It is actually – can you believe it – world news that Turkey’s national carrier doesn’t want its cabin crew to use red lipstick anymore.
According to journalism standards, an airline that decides which make-up its staff should and should not use is not news. Except if it orders its stewardesses to wear black lipstick and nail polish, or if it demands its male cabin crew use lipstick too, because that is exceptional.
It is perfectly normal for an airline to decide how its staff looks. You know that when you become a stewardess. You won’t even get hired if you don’t fit the average beauty standards. Before you can fly, you get make-up classes, to make sure you appear at work the way the company likes it. You get handed the uniform, and you don’t get a say in whether you like it or not. Because in the air (and the same goes for ground staff), you are not supposed to be a personality in your own right, but a representative of the company.
So why is the lipstick affair news? Because it can be framed as an ‘Islamization in Turkey’ story. Imagine a Turkey correspondent mailing his paper or agency abroad, writing: ‘News! Turkish Airlines forbids red lipstick!’ Will the editor somewhere in New York, Paris or Hong Kong get excited? No, he will shrug his shoulders. But what if you mail: ‘News! Turkish Airlines forbids red lipstick, and some say it’s a sign of Turkey’s Islamization!’ Bingo.
The question is: does it have anything to do with Islamization? There is no proof whatsoever of that. Turkish Airlines (Türk Hava Yollari, THY) apparently wants its personnel to look natural, and bright colour lipstick or nail polish doesn’t suit that image. I bet there are hundreds of airlines in the world that have similar rules. Nobody ever wrote a news story about that.
Basic economic sense
Just like some time ago, when Turkish Airlines announced it would no longer serve alcohol on some domestic flights and on some international flights. You can imagine how that was immediately framed. If you made any effort to get a little bit of extra information, you would have found out that alcohol was taken off the menu on domestic flights on which alcohol was never ordered. I would say its basic economic sense to not take up in the air what you don’t need anyway. On flights to destinations where people do want to drink – from Istanbul to coastal cities like Antalya, Bordum and Izmir – alcohol is still being served. Custom made service, right?
The international flights? Turkish Airlines is expanding its number of destinations rapidly, also in the Arabic world. At some destinations, you don’t get landing rights if you serve alcohol. So what do you do if you want to earn money? You take alcohol off the menu. Which pilgrim on the way to Medina would order wine anyway? Besides, worldwide there are a whole lot of airlines that don’t serve alcohol on short flights. Ever read throbbing news articles about those?
But the uniform, remember the uniform! Yes, I remember the uniform. Not too long ago, a picture of ‘the new THY uniform’ leaked to the Turkish press. Long skirts to the ankles, caftan-like overcoats. See, Islamization! Soon it turned out that it was just one of the many new uniform designs that were considered by THY, and that they hadn’t yet made up their mind about which one to pick. They still haven’t, as far as I know. But the Islamization scaremongers don’t care, they only see the story they want to see.
The Islamization scaremongers say this lipstick policy is one of the steps towards making women invisible and curtailing women’s rights. You wait and see, before you know it, red lipstick will be banned on the street too! And then high heels! And before you know it, the burka is obligatory! They forget that this is a legitimate company regulation, and that there is no law involved, and that the governing party AKP has nothing to do with this.
And, for that matter, the AKP has been in power now for ten years and has not issued one law that restricts the way people are dressed in any way. Yes, they gave the headscarf more freedom. Which leads to higher levels of education for women who wear the scarf. I think that’s good for women’s emancipation, and it complies with the freedom of religion. And it has absolutely nothing to do with lipstick at Turkish Airlines.
Variety of customers
The lipstick policy of THY has to do with the rapid growth of the company. They no longer only fly to Berlin and Amsterdam, but also to Addis Ababa, Jeddah, Beijing, Bahrein, Capetown, Sapporo, Sao Paulo, Ndjamena and Islamabad – you name any corner in the world and THY goes there. Their company profile has to fit the expectations of an ever-extending variety of customers. So you keep it as plain and natural as possible. You try to ban exceptions to the rules, and turn back freedoms that individual employees have started to permit themselves. Logical, because the bigger your company gets, the more important it is that all employees disseminate your company profile properly, so your brand can be easily recognized.
The people framing this into internal Turkish politics make the domestic profile and the domestic market of Turkish Airlines way too important. Turkish Airlines is a global player. It’s not Islamization that you see, it’s plain capitalism. You know, the same ideology that got the company into trouble with workers unions.
And the stewardesses who complained about the red lipstick ban by putting pictures of themselves online with red lipstick? Really, if you wanted to pursue a career in which you have the right to express your individuality with your outfit, you should have chosen another profession.
It was another victorious week for Prime Minister Erdogan: he managed to get the Turkish media further under his control. And the media are not even protesting. On the contrary, they are willingly and with a smile accepting Erdogan’s proposal to make propaganda for the peace process that the government is (supposedly) initiating. At the same time yet another columnist was fired for expressing her opinions, this time Amberin Zaman, who wrote for daily HaberTurk.
Erdogan has installed a commission of ‘wise men’, whose task it will be to inform the people about the peace process, of course from the government’s perspective. The first meeting of the Prime Minister with the commission’s 51 men and 12 women has been held already, but nobody quite knows yet in what way these 63 people are going to inform the public, and not even about what exactly – the peace process, and especially the government’s contribution to it, remains totally vague.
But we do know the names of all these wise men and these few wise women. A staggering 21 of them, exactly one third, are working for big national papers, most of them as columnists, a few as reporters and one even as editor in chief. They work for the papers HaberTurk, Milliyet, Hürriyet, Star, Yeni Akit, Radikal, Taraf, Zaman, Bugün, and Yeni Safak.
Important opinion leaders
Like I said, most of them are not reporters, but columnists. They have another job besides contributing to newspapers, and most of them are first and foremost academics. They are no doubt wise in their own fields of expertise and respected in (certain segments of) society. But I think their appointment as ‘wise men’ is incompatible with being a columnist. They apparently couldn’t resist taking the prestigious wise job, but they should now have the guts to quit writing for national papers. If they don’t, the editors in chief of their papers should fire them. The one editor in chief on the list, Oral Calislar of Taraf, can’t fire himself, so his editors or the readers, should urge him to step down.
Columnists are important opinion leaders in Turkey, often called ‘journalist’ but they don’t do the work that is in general considered journalism. They don’t write interviews, reportages or background articles, they analyse and comment on developments in politics and society, based on their (in most cases) academic knowledge. Should they be subject to the same standards of independence as journalists? Yes, in this case I think so.
Contribute to the peace process
Turkish media are part of the issue that needs to be addressed through this peace process, the Kurdish issue. By their nationalist, pro-state and anti-Kurdish writing (and broadcasting), they have been largely responsible for painting a picture of the Kurdish issue as being a matter of terrorism – more about mechanisms in Turkish media in this previous article I wrote. If they want to contribute to the peace process, what they should do is distance themselves from the state and the government and try to promote a journalism as independent, free and unbiased as possible. By allowing their columnists and reporters to accept prestigious government jobs, they are doing just the opposite. The media are coming under firmer government control, which only adds to the problem.
From columnists, readers should be able to trust as much as possible that their contributions are based on their expertise as academics and that they are not just writing to please the government. From reporters, we may expect that they base their (choices for) stories on journalistic criteria, not on what the government would like to read. An editor in chief’s job is to lead his paper with only journalism in mind, and not his task as an officially recognized ‘wise man’. What Turkey needs, what the peace process can’t do without and what the people of Turkey are entitled to, is good journalism, not more spokespersons for the government in the national media.
In the name of peace
Of course, this is all typical of Erdogan. When he started this peace initiative, he straight away called on the media to ‘support’ the process, in other words, support and, more than that, not criticize the government’s line of action. One of the first to say he would give that support was Aydin Dogan, business tycoon and owner of some of the biggest and most important papers and TV stations. For those who hoped that would naturally mean more space for good, independent journalism, well, their naive dreams are shattered now.
But mind my words, none of these columnists and reporters will get fired, and Oral Calislar (nota bene the editor in chief of one of the few Turkish papers not owned by a business tycoon or Erdogan confidant) will stay put. The ‘wise men’ will also be interviewed about their new tasks, thus more pages will be filled with government propaganda. Hardly anybody will ask critical questions, afraid of being accused of being against peace.
And dissidents will be tolerated even less. HaberTurk’s Amberin Zaman is the most recently fired columnist who did dare to write openly, who did not censor herself under pressure from her paper’s boss and who continued to criticize the government till her last published column. She will definitely not be the last to lose her job in the name of ‘peace’.
My thoughts go back these days to a story I wrote in 1996. What it was about isn’t important. The state of mind I was in is. Pure concentration, no distraction, only that one story that I wanted to write as perfectly as possible. I worked for hours in what we would now call ‘flow’, and the result was commensurate. That, my dear readers, is the state of mind I need for the months, and possibly the year to come. And I need to force it to happen.
The story I was writing at the time was the kind of story I had never written before. I was working at a big magazine company in the Netherlands, and for five years I had been a cadet journalist at a monthly magazine. It was time for a new job. The editor in chief encouraged me to start writing for the magazines I wanted to work for in my own time, as a freelancer, so I could write myself into the picture.
I decided to write a 2,500 word full-quote interview for Marie Claire. You know, the ‘Confessions’ kind of story. I had never done such a long full-quote interview before. So, to do it properly, I neededdistraction-free time. Which was easy to create in those days. I don’t think I even had the internet at home yet, and if I did, it was that slow kind for which you only started up the lengthy access procedure with funny noises if it was really necessary, which it never was. In the morning, you read one or two papers, and that was it.
Millions of times
The 2,500 word story that I wrote back then has become a routine kind of thing. Any story I write these days can be considered a routine thing. Reportage, news, interview, narrative, background, analysis, blog post, I’ve done it all millions of times. No wonder it is once again time, just as it was then, to do something new. A book. That’s not 2,500 words, that’s about 80,000 words, divided into some 10 chapters.
I have never written 80,000 words. I have never written a chapter of 8,000 words. It requires a different kind of writing. A chapter requires a completely different approach than a story. If I have to write 2,000 words, I know how to construct the story and it automatically all falls into place, just like when I have to write only 300 words. With 8,000 words, with, to be more specific, ten times 8,000 words that have to connect and make a whole, that is something quite different.
Not for one Saturday
It is impossible to accomplish this without making radical changes to how I work. I need to once again get into the same mood as when I worked with such deep concentration on that story in 1996. Not just for one Saturday, but for months at a time, possibly the whole year ahead of me.
I have to not only write, but research as well. With as few distractions as possible, I have to work on one chapter after another. No random travelling anymore, like before (and which has been essential toget to the point where I am now), but specific interviews and specific destinations for the information I need. Travel, talk, think, write write write.
This means I will have to cut back on blogging for this site. I have been posting here for more than five years at least once a week with hardly any exception. No longer possible. Tweeting: from an average of 44 tweets a day I will cut back dramatically. Facebook: luckily I hate FB so that won’t be difficult to ban from my life. Mail: I’m known for reacting ultra fast to my mail, which is in many cases not even necessary, so expect a change there.
Kick my own ass
The site KurdishMatters is closely related to the book, so I will keep blogging there, but no, in general not about news concerning the Kurdish issue. The book will not be about the news either, (that’s not possible in a ‘slow’ product like a book), so I will adjust the blogging on KurdishMatters to the pace of the book: slow, with human stories, and the bigger stories they reveal. I’m going to leave the news and analysis competition to others, and concentrate on what I do, what I’m good at and what nobody else does: slow journalism about the Kurdish issue.
Not all my time will go into the book. I will have to keep on earning money in the meantime, because my funds are not sufficient to work only on the book for a year (click here if you want to donate!). So one or two days a week I will keep on working for my news agency ANP, for a magazine I do final editing jobs for, and for an English language website. Maybe an occasional extra story.
Why am I sharing this? I need it. This is a radical change in how I have worked for more than twenty years. It will be difficult at first, since I’m a news junky, since I love to speak out about what’s happening all the time, since I’m basically a twitter addict. With this blog I kick my own ass. And of course, I want my readers to know why I will be less visible this year. So if you wonder now and then: hey, where is Fréderike?, I hope you will remember this blog. I salute you from the huge and long-lasting concentration bubble.
It’s all vanity. I just couldn’t resist when national IMC-TV asked me to be on their late night show to talk about developments in the Kurdish issue. In Turkish. Vanity, a will to be part of the debate, a wish to speak out. Could I do that properly in Turkish? The funny answer is: I’m not sure.
I know my subject, I don’t doubt that. I have an opinion about it. And I try to analyze what’s happening – that’s the hardest part. While formulating my thoughts, I always wonder if there is something I have overlooked, any development I failed to take into account, or if I’m not too negative, or too positive. I think nuance is very important, and so is admitting sometimes that you just don’t know the answers to some questions. Especially when it comes to the Kurdish issue in Turkey, there are so many blanks. What is happening behind the scenes? So when you talk on TV, you want to show that you know your subject, but also that you realize there are many unknowns and not every question can be answered.
In Dutch, that’s easy. In English I can do that too. But in Turkish? Nowhere near as well, of course. And that made me very nervous and insecure. More insecure than I need to be, actually. Because for IMC-TV, and for other TVstations I’ve appeared on (AHaber and CNNTürk), perfect Turkish isn’t necessary. All they are interested in is how a foreigner, one who actually moved to Diyarbakir as the only foreign journalist in the country, looks at the matter.
That my language has flaws is not at all a reason for them to take me less seriously. On the contrary: speaking in Turkish, even if it’s broken, is considered way better than in perfect English with a simultaneous translator, which would be seen as arrogant.
So if speaking in Turkish as a foreigner actually contributes to my credibility, why would I be insecure about it? For one of course because I want to explain myself as good as possible, but I think it also has to do with where I come from, the Netherlands. There you have to speak flawless Dutch before anybody will take you seriously in a debate. How well you know Dutch seems to get linked to your intelligence. One mistake and you’re out! And giggled at, at least. Even though I find this ridiculous, it does play a part in how I judge myself. I take myself less seriously because my Turkish isn’t flawless. How stupid is that?
In short: it was a nerve-wrecking experience, and my most difficult TV appearance ever. I hope it takes some time – let’s say five years – before I’m asked again, so I have time to further improve my Turkish. And if there are any earlier invitations? I’m afraid I won’t turn them down. Like I said: it’s all vanity 😉
Want to see the show? I’m not sure if it’s online already, but I admit I didn’t really search properly.
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.
The Prime Minister of a country dealing with huge problems both inside and right on its border, who spends his energy criticizing a TV series. Funny as it seems, the way the ‘problem’ of this highly popular TV series, “Magnificent Century”, is being handled at the moment isn’t very funny at all. Far from it. The law being drafted to ban the Magnificent Century is the sister of the infamous penal code article 301, which makes ‘insulting Turkishness’ a punishable offense.
The law, or more precisely an extra article in the law concerning media watchdog RTÜK, is ready to be sent to parliament. It’s expected that The Magnificent Century, about the life and especially the loves of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, will disappear next year. The series, is Erdogan’s verdict, doesn’t show enough of the political and military triumphs of the Sultan and too much of his interest in the feminine beauty in the harem. The bill reads: ‘Historical events and figures that are highly esteemed by society cannot be shown in a way that humiliates, belittles or distorts them or doesn’t reflect their reality’. Do you see that phrase, ‘that are highly esteemed by society’? It worries me. A lot.
Atatürk is highly esteemed, of course
It will be up to RTÜK, a state institution with only politicians as board members, to decide which historic events and figures that comprises. The state and the Members of Parliament in the board are strongly rooted in Turkish nationalism. They will define what society esteems highly, as the state has already done for so long. Atatürk is highly esteemed of course, as are for example the Turkish army, Ottoman history, Members of Parliament in general and the Prime Minister and the President in particular, and the War of Independence.
Where popular TV can play a big role in breaking the imposed sanctity of these highly esteemed events and figures, and advance democracy by letting people make up their own minds about all the information they get through several different channels, the AKP says: let the state once again decide for you how you should look at our history. Let’s not welcome new interpretations, new visions, new angels. Let’s not sometimes laugh about historical figures, get some amusement out of them, amaze ourselves, get angry, or whatever.
Protect the greatness of Turkey
What worries me even more: how about historical events and figures that are not highly esteemed by society? It’s apparently okay to humiliate, belittle and distort those. Anybody can go ahead with, to name a few, humiliating, belittling and distorting the Armenians and Greeks who once lived in Anatolia in large numbers. It is okay to not show the reality of events like the Armenian genocide, the burning of Izmir, the Istanbul pogrom or the Dersim massacre. Actually, some of these events are actually on the list of ‘historical events esteemed by society’, but then described the way the state prefers to look at them.
In practice, you can say, this situation has already been the reality for ages. True. But putting it down in a law is quite something else. Not only will it lead to high fines and subsequently to self censorship, and not only is it a blow to democratization, it also strengthens the already strong and weakens the already weak. The law is a way to protect the greatness of Turkey, Turks and their official history, and once again leaves the ones that suffered in that history to their fate. It makes the new RTÜK law article basically the sister of the infamous article 301 of the Turkish penal code, in force to this day, which makes it punishable to ‘insult Turkishness’. People have died because of it.