Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Taraf's Demir and Press Freedom

Taraf has not been shy about challenging the military or the government. This headline reads: "His General's Prime Minister." PHOTO from the National

Adnan Demir, the manager and representative to the owner of the liberal newspaper Taraf, faces a 5-year prison term for allegedly violating Article 336 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). Article 336 criminalizes the disclosure of classified information, and is one of many articles of the TCK under which press freedom/freedom of expression is limited. The conflcit between national security and press freedom is normal in constitutional democracy, but the criminal case against Taraf exemplifies what is not at all a healthy treatment of this dialectic in Turkish politics. Rather, the case against Demir is representative of substantial restrictions on press freedom (see Bianet Media Monitoring Report, Dec. 1).

Demir's case results from Taraf's reports that the military had prior knowledge of the deadly PKK attack on Turkish soldiers in
Aktükün this October. Taraf's stories included reports and images said to be gendarmerie intelligence, and enraged Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ. Başbuğ called a press conference in which he denounced the allegations, and declared Taraf to have blood on its hands.

Taraf's writers have been subject to similar allegations in the past, including numerous political and legal attacks that ensued following its coverage of a related incident
Daglica, as a result of which the paper fell under similar attacks by the TSK. In June, perhaps prematurely, the paper ran a story alleging the TSK of plotting a coup in 2007. Indeed, given the paper's history of provoking the military establishment, it is amazing the paper has managed to stay open. In April 2007, the military was instrumental in shutting down Nokta, whose offices were raided and editor arrested after the paper published diaries of a military officer involved in efforts to overthrow the AKP-government. The "coup diaries" were published at the height of the crisis surrounding Abdullah Gül's election to the presidency.

In an excellent article by freelance writer
Suzy Hansen in the National, Hansen discusses Taraf's niche.
In the often unreliable world of Turkish newspapers, Taraf distinguished itself by asking ugly questions: about the military’s performance against the militant separatists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and about the army’s dominant role in Turkish politics; about the prime minister’s commitment to human rights; and of course, about Ergenekon. The prelude to true democratic reform, the paper seemed to insist, was a truly open and free platform for spirited debate.

“Taraf has probably enormously contributed to Turkey’s relative democratisation over the past year,” said Halil Berktay, a Turkish public intellectual and professor of history at Sabanci University who contributes a column to Taraf twice a week. “It has been like a flash of lightning.”

Taraf owes its boldness to a luxury that is increasingly rare – and not just in Turkey: an independent owner who does not interfere with the work of his editors. Taraf’s founder Basar Arslan, a 40-year-old bookstore owner and publisher, wasn’t particularly active in politics before launching Taraf, and he still shies away from the public eye. (He did not respond to questions for this story.) But according to his editors, he had always wanted to own a newspaper – and he called up a few of his friends to recruit them to produce a small daily that represented their liberal views, what he envisioned as “a very prestigious, independent paper,” according to Yasemin Congar, an editor, who added: “Now he loves it.”

But at first they thought he was crazy. Three heavyweights signed on anyway: the bestselling novelist and columnist Ahmet Altan, and two veteran journalists, Congar and Alev Er.

In Turkey, a large segment of the mainstream media is controlled by one man, Aydin Dogan, who owns the popular papers Hurriyet, Milliyet, and Radikal, as well as TV stations and various other business concerns. Hurriyet and Milliyet are more nationalist; Radikal more liberal. “We have seen an increasing cartelisation of the press and much more organic links between the press and political factions,” said Berktay. “It’s the Turkish version of the Berlusconi phenomenon. In fact, if Dogan came to power it would be a very precise parallel.”

Zaman, another heavy-hitting popular paper backed by followers of the Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen, is an exquisitely designed broadsheet catering to religious conservatives, and is largely supportive of AKP. (They boast one of the highest circulations, according to one source, at around 650,000; Hurriyet sells about 550,000 copies, Milliyet 200,000 and Radikal only 40,000). A fifth major paper, Sabah, was recently sold to a holding firm, Calik, seen as close to AKP. Cumhuriyet, a small, text-heavy, serious paper, serves the old-guard secular elite. And there are many, many others – too many to characterise – but few of them bucked the status quo with the same intellectual gravitas as Taraf.

Language tips off a paper’s readership: Zaman, more religious, will employ Arabic words; Cumhuriyet, a nationalist paper, will use as much Turkish as the language allows. You could divide how people vote roughly according to the newspapers they read – AKP die-hards might read Zaman, secularists prefer Hurriyet and Cumhuriyet. Leftists favour Radikal, which boasts some of the country’s best liberal columnists, though some have decamped – along with their readers – to Taraf.

Taraf eschews the paeans to the Turkish state typical of the other papers and hews to an antinationalist line. Yasemin Congar pointed out that even on national holidays, when all the other papers drape their front pages with red flags and photos of Turkey’s founder-hero Ataturk, Taraf abstains from patriotic displays. “It’s slightly irreverent in tone,” said Jenny White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University who has written many books on Turkey and lives on-and-off in Istanbul. “In a framework where counter-discourse can get you hauled into court or worse, humour and wit may be the only ‘safe’ forms.” “I’m amazed it hasn’t been shut down,” she added.

Instead, Taraf has continued to grow. “Taraf managed to reach a circulation which went over 90,000 at one point, but also managed to get a permanent readership of between 50-60,000,” Congar said. “At the beginning what looked realistic to me was 35,000 at most. We now have a readership which is not only leftists and urban youth, or only conservatives or liberals, or only the Kurds or Turks, but all of these people. There is a good segment of religious conservatives in our readership which was a surprise because we’re not religious or conservative.”
Hansen discusses Taraf's pressing coverage of Ergenekon, the AKP closure case, and the Daglica and Aktukun affairs. Hansen also mention's Taraf's criticism of the AKP-government: the sluggish pace of adopting pro-EU reform, its recalcitrance toward resolving the Kurdish question, and its increased nationalist political posturing. Most insightful is her valuation of the paper in a climate of fear -- in which "Memories of military coups and the steady creep of a violent neo-nationalism make ordinary Turks scared to do or say the wrong thing, and paranoid about ulterior motives."

As Bianet's media monitoring report concludes, restrictions on the freedom of expression in Turkey continue, and the blame for several can be placed squarely at the feet of the government. In November, Erdogan withdrew the acceditation of journalists who had been critical of his involvement in the Deniz Feneri scandal. Erdogan also sought to influence press coverage by telling his constituents not to buy critical newspapers (see TDZ, Nov. 26; see also Andrew Finkel, TDZ, Nov. 30). These actions and others indicate the government's proclivity to treat opposition press differently, and though Taraf will inevitably keep on swinging, such discrimination does not bode well for Demir and the paper's future.


Wladimir van Wilgenburg said...

Read this article if you have time:

According to MEMRI Taraf is part of the Gulen hierarchy btw. I am not sure about that, since the article is very biased.

"Excluding the Islamist television and radio stations, newspapers such as Zaman, Sabah, Yeni Şafak, Türkiye, Star, Bugün, Vakit, and Taraf all have AKP and/or Gülen-affiliated ownership. By circulation, such papers represent at least 40 percent of all newspaper sales in Turkey.[46]"
Their source is Hurriyet

Ragan Updegraff said...

Yeah, Taraf is not owned by Gülen, and has a very different editorial line than Zaman. It is ridiculous to group these papers together, and it just shows the quality of scholarship comming from places like MEMRI. It is particularly saddening to see such shoddy and ideologically-laden scholarship emanating from one's own country, but so it goes . . .

Anonymous said...

Actually, I could make the case -- if I were pushed -- that Taraf and Zaman do tend to act it concert enough times that their editorial bias might be seen as similar if viewed with the present polarisation in mind.

I wouldn't say, though, that Gulen funds Taraf. We partially know who funded it. Up till their falling out with RTE over Gen. Basbug, state banks and such were generous with their ads and other AKP-supporting media were giving printing jobs to the parent company. The source for this is Taraf staff who publicly complained that the Sabah group had cancelled some book order and that official (and unofficial) ads had dried up. I was dismayed to see that while people rushed to help them, nobody had the presence of mind to force them to disclose their financials. It is fine to rely on donations from the readership or indeed organized public support for a paper with a particular aim, but doing so in a non-transparent manner and having the supposedly highly educated folks still part with their cash is odd. People poke fun at the pious getting fooled by charities who say 'trust us, we're pious too' but I don't see how it is different than saying 'trust us, we're liberals too.'

On the other hand figuring out what Gulen's people do is not easy since they do not seem to have a transparent or even a formal organization. I don't know if they are as powerful as people claim. I don't see a way to figure it out until the AKP is voted out and their opportunistic allies shift their support.

What people seem to miss is that it is highly likely that the Turkish state has given and possibly continues to give them active and tacit support independent of the AKP. They do, afterall, project Turkish soft power abroad and control a crowd that probably would cause trouble domestically had they not been brought under a system of control. Ever since the coup of '80 and pretty much across the board, all governments supported them publicly (including the 'left'). I haven't researched any of this and I wasn't even living in Turkey when they truly flourished but I think my hunches can be backed up. We know what happens to grass-roots organizations when the state doesn't quite like the organizing they do and it isn't pretty. (Remember, this organization isn't new, it has existed since the 70's at least and Gulen was involved with state-backed anti-communist agitation back then.)

I agree that MEMRI isn't a reliable source, but that doesn't mean they always lie. There's enough solid info out there that you can cherry pick and paint whatever picture you want within a wide range. I think modern propaganda can be effective w/o resorting to lies. It is probably more effective without lies anyway.

As for the circulation figures, Zaman publishes them also. Here's a recent link. I eyeballed the figures (down to and including Cumhuriyet but excluding the sports papers) and 40% does indeed seem close. (Total for Zaman, Sabah, Star, Yeni Safak).

Oh, and, Ragan, as far as being saddened for what emanates from one's country goes, I'll point out that at least in yours something like Taraf isn't being talked up by foreigners using fancy terms like intellectual gravitas.

Ragan Updegraff said...

When intentional, cherry picking is lying; when it is not intentional, it is shoddy work. I
tend to think it is probably always intention, as conclusions are drawn before facts are collected. Facts that are collected are supportive of one's conclusions, and any information that runs counter is suppressed. This is a conscious, discriminating effort with a specific goal in mind. While it might be teleologically justified -- and, maybe even by good people -- it is certainly not honest scholarship. For example, if what Wladimir says is true and Hürriyet is the source for this, why not state Hürriyet's obvious position in Turkish politics. This does not necessarily mean that the information is false, but in a murky environment where advantages are to be gained by lies and distortions, it prevents false conclusions from being drawn by asking readers to dig a little deeper. Unfortunately, too often many shovels are needed, and too often rocks line the way.

The 40-percent number, for me, fails to be intriguing. Even if Zaman alone received 40-percent of Turkey's readership, while certainly unhealthy and potentially dangerous for democracy, it would tell me little about the "Gülen threat" as MEMRI represents it. The warrant MEMRI is relying on here -- why Islamists owning large sectors of newspaper readership is so sinister -- should be clearly stated and justified here, and it is not. What is Gülen's relationship to these papers? How and why is that relationship dangerous -- how much interference takes place, how much does ideology dictate story coverage, how much manipulation akin to that undertaken by MEMRI take place thanks to it being a "Gülen paper"? We need to know these things to take the claim seriously, and so that we can properly argue about them. Providing warrants is essential for good argument, and a scholarly publication should be particularly solid.

Also egregious is grouping all of these papers together without clarifying what "AKP and/or Gülen-affiliated ownership" means. Advertising is not ownership, though it might well effect objectivity. Evidence needs to be proferred as to how this is so, and again, warrants clearly made so that we can properly argue the claims.

Wladimir: Good work on the blog. If you have the "very biased" article from MEMRI, perhaps you might post it so we can preserve it for posterity in the context of this conversation. ;)

Bülent: As always, thanks for the insight, and for the circulation numbers, which are interesting in and of themselves. It really would be eye-opening to look into just who and what organizations fund Taraf, as it would any forceful Turkish political actor, but just how and if this should be done is really beyond my expertise. The nexus between Gülen and the state is really very interesting, and for a scholar who does know something of it, even if she is perhaps too dismissive of its possible insiduousness, see Berna Turnam. Her book, BETWEEN ISLAM AND THE STATE, is really quite something.

Anonymous said...

Yup, I'd heard about Turnam's book but haven't looked at it yet. Thank you.

You are right about the story on the 40%, and of course Dogan Group directly owns papers with a comparable reach. Also noteworthy is that it was mainly Dogan papers' fear campaign about kiddie porn that prompted the parliament to pass that internet law. Media ownership, if the internet remains as we know it, might become less meaningful over the years, but if an unholy alliance of big media and inept politicians manage to impose controls (licensure, extensive access logging, promise of legal trouble for accessing 'unauthorised' stuff etc.) the picture might change. The same danger is present in the background of the network neutrality debate in the US.

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Anonymous said...

the old comunists of 60s & 70s(new liberals) and the moderate seeming radical muslims are writing in taraf...that should be the god's irony. the enemies become friends...i should ask to western world who could be your sincere friends? those people writing in taraf or the other secular contemporary people of turkey? there is a thin red line between moderate islam and the fanatics..what if u can not control them as in the afganistan or iran? we dont want to be second iran...