Friday, April 8, 2011

A Not-So Liberal Today's Zaman

Today's Zaman columnist Andrew Finkel has been fired from the paper after trying to publish a column on the recent raids of newspapers and detention of journalists connected with Ahmet Şık's unpublished manuscript Imam Ordusu (The Imam's Army), which documents connections between the Gulen movement and the police (for more on Şık, click here). Gulen owns Today's Zaman, as well as the Turkish-language Zaman, which has always been even more conservative and decidedly less "liberal" in its editorial decisions. The column ran instead in today's Hurriyet Daily News. Here is an excerpt:
It was a bit over three years ago that I was recruited to write this column for this newspaper (Today’s Zaman). I remember the conversation well. The editor-in-chief anticipated that I might be hesitant to associate myself with a press group whose prejudices and principles might not always coincide with my own. He explained what I knew already, that the Zaman Group supported and was supported by the Fetullah Gülen Community and that I would have to take that on board. However, he explained the paper's mission was to fight for the democratization of Turkish society – that Turkey was no longer a country which should be ruled by military fiat. He also impressed upon me that he was committed to liberal values and to free discussion. And then, of course, he flattered me by saying that mine was a voice which the target audience of Today’s Zaman would want to hear.

. . . .

I have already expressed my concern that the fight against anti-democratic forces in Turkey has resorted to self-defeating anti-democratic methods. This in turn has led to a polarization in Turkey. If your side loses power then the natural fear is that they will use your methods against you. In case this sounds like I am speaking in riddles, I am referring to the aggressive prosecution of people who write books. These may be bad books, they may be books which are written with ulterior motives, they may be books which contain assertions which are not true. But at the end of the day, they are books – and there are libel courts – not criminal courts – designed to protect individuals from malicious falsehood. In short, writing a book offensive to the Gülen community is not a crime.
In the column, Finkel explains his initial reasons for writing for Today's Zaman, which has seemingly grown more conservative, partisan, and unreliable in the past two years to the point that many foreign observers of Turkey (including me) have stopped regularly posting from the paper. For another take on this phenomenon, see Jenny White's reflections on Finkel's firing.

Though the paper still has a few good journalists, namely the always probing, always thought-provoking Ayse Karabat, the paper has for the most part ventured far from its more liberal beginnings. Luckily, Hurriyet Daily News has much improved in recent years from the state it was in when I first began following events in Turkey on a daily basis in 2008. Friends who have worked at Today's Zaman have told me the vast majority of the staff belong to the Gulen organization, and that the news organization has a strong culture that makes dissent more than difficult.

Yet, both papers are still widely read by English-language Turkey observers, including members of the European Parliament (for example, see CHP Onur Oymen's exchange with Ria Oomen-Ruitjen, the European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, last February).

Finkel's firing is unfortunate, but more for Today's Zaman than Finkel. The paper loses a good columnist who is sure to find work elsewhere while further undermining its credentials as a reliable news source with a liberal editorial line, as the paper at least used to present itself. This is also not Finkel's first firing. The veteran journalist was fired from Sabah  in 1999 at the behest of the National Security Council (MGK) after publishing pieces critical of the Turkish military establishment.

UPDATE I (4/11) --  Today's Zaman editor-in-chief Bulent Kenes has written a column explaining the paper's reasons for firing Finkel. An excerpt:
Today’s Zaman’s faith and efforts to turn this country, which has suffered from coup d’états, a deep state, unsolved murders, bloody gangs, discrimination, human rights violations -- in brief, a country that has suffered because it hasn’t had a strong democracy and an accountable state -- into a country where universal democratic standards and the rule of law are ensured, and to bring individual rights and freedoms to the highest level, is as strong as it was the first day and will continue to be that way. No one should doubt that. It is obvious that Today’s Zaman has not changed. It is also obvious that we are making publications to expose bloody gangs despite several risks. So what is it that has changed? What has changed is that some of our writers have come under the influence of the strong and dark propaganda that is at play and have started to stagger. Unfortunately I feel the same way about Finkel, who I know does not have ill intentions in any way.
So, if one does not agree with the editorial line of Today's Zaman, they have have been brainwashed by "strong and dark propaganda." A world of black-and-white . . . how convenient.

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