Monday, May 16, 2011

Arab unrest may help Europe to fight its demons

Day after day, Europe is turning into a sick continent. Specters of racism and xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiments and a hatred for Islam are rising up and threatening to take over mainstream politics.

Signals coming from France (Marine Le Pen), Netherlands (Geert Wilders), Finland (True Finns Party) and Sweden (Swedish Democrats Party) are adding to fears of a déjà vu of the 1930s is on our doorstep. Discreet or open racism is on the march, with the likes of Geert Wilders calling for a ban of the Quran or Thilo Sarrazin, a former member of the board of Deutsche Bundesbank, spreading nonsensical claims about the genes of the Muslims and conveying hatred.

The far right is openly threatening the European project.

The worst part is, as Timothy Garton Ash recently wrote in the Guardian, “In the Netherlands, as elsewhere in Europe, centre-right parties have been trying to win back voters who have turned to such anti-foreigner populists by adopting slightly toned-down versions of their rhetoric and policies.”

A picture of the European Union in 2011 is one where unifying “European values” have stepped aside for a dangerous discourse on divisive “European identity.” It has been taking over as a dominating attitude feeding on religious and cultural fault lines, despite the foundations of the EU being based on values stated clearly in the European Convention on Human Rights.

This takes place as the concept of diversity suppresses the concept of freedom. In many corners of Europe parallel societies developed and groups continued to live without a fruitful contact with each other, all in the name of protecting diversity. But, it also led to a neglect of basic human rights. Mental barriers rose between the various groups and paved the way for growing intolerance among the locals -- who were increasingly indifferent to participation in democratic debate, financial crisis, unemployment, political apathy, etc, -- that is, mainly against people who believe in Islam.

As traditional, mainstream parties lose control of the direction of discourse, the situation will inevitably threaten the ideals of the EU. This has to be diverted onto a healthy course by engaging the mass-media, churches, NGOs, trade unions and schools.

In this context, a well-prepared report comes as a rescue: “Living together: Combining diversity and freedom in 21st century Europe,” a report of the Group of Eminent Persons of the Council of Europe, points out a set of risks and their urgency, such as “a possible clash between religious freedom and freedom of expression.” The report encourages Europeans to call for equal freedoms under a single legal system. It speaks of a “muscular liberalism” and broadening the base of the “democratic centerfield.”

Garton Ash, one of the signatories of the study (its members include prominent libertarian Europeans such as Joschka Fischer, Emma Bonino, Danuta Hübner, Ayşe Kadıoğlu, Javier Solana, Edward Mortimer, etc.) wrote: “Our motto is ‘minimize compulsion, maximize persuasion.’ Mainstream politicians, intellectuals, journalists, businesspeople, sports heroes -- all should mobilize to convince the public that so long as people abide by the ground rules of a free society, they have as much right to be full and equal citizens as anyone else, whether they be Muslim, Christian, atheist or Zoroastrian. And that we can make this work.”

“Living Together” is a text which must be spread and studied carefully, since it issues a clear SOS about the state of things. It contains a high number of lucid recommendations for action in order to end discrimination, intolerance, obeying laws, combating racism, etc.

But there is more to help the sick continent. Can the Arab awakening be a guiding force to change European attitudes to Islam? Clearly, it can. I was part of an initial meeting in Rome last week where a core group of academics and media figures from various European countries as well as from the Middle East/ Maghreb gathered to outline a manifesto which says: “In light of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, part of a broad struggle for freedom and dignity, Europeans urgently need to rethink their attitudes. The Arab world and Islam are not immutable essences but equally open to such influences as Europeans and their various faiths have been. These events in North Africa and the Middle East will have a profound and long-lasting impact on Europe -- whether in terms of politics, security, economics, migration or cultural and religious relations. Rather than fearing such changes Europeans should welcome them as a great reinvigorating democratic challenge. In addition they provide an opportunity to examine afresh relations with Muslim communities in Europe, which are also being deeply affected.”

The Rome Group will now engage in various actions through media and academic studies, to fight continental fear and insecurity. The path is a long one, but the way things deteriorate, it is the one that must be taken.


Media freedom in Turkey: What to do?

As journalists celebrated World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday here in Turkey another historic event in the sector also took place. The Milliyet and Vatan dailies changed proprietors in a ceremony that was attended by most of the staff of both newspapers.

Milliyet has been part of the strong tradition of journalism in Turkey, it was once led by the legendary editor Abdi İpekçi, a social-liberal intellectual who was murdered in 1979 by Mehmet Ali Ağca (who attempted to murder the Pope John Paul II some years later) in the center of İstanbul. Both newspapers, which belonged to the Doğan Media Group and have now been taken over by the Demirören-Karacan venture, have devoted professionals, but the ceremony had a somewhat bitter, uncertain air to it. Some of them felt sad that they were traded like serfs in the Middle Ages without being asked or consulted. None of them, not even those in the highest positions in the newsroom had been given any information about the sale. At the ceremony they were ignored, I was told by a colleague.

It is part of the sad reality of the already burdened profession, revealing a lot of clues about the respect for, and the editorial independence of, the Turkish media. Some of my readers may feel that focusing on ownership issues is an obsession. On the contrary, it is one of the key issues when one discusses the media sector. Sadly, the established corporate culture, which is heavily dependent on the powers that be in Ankara, deliberately hindered journalism over the past two decades from developing into a domain of rights and freedom and to remain loyal to its core values. One certainly hopes that the sale of Milliyet and Vatan, which weakens the unfairly strong domination of the Doğan Media Group in print, will encourage a return to the basics once emphasized by İpekçi, but it is a small hope.

Today, we -- many concerned journalists from Turkey -- will gather in Brussels to discuss media freedom issues together with colleagues from the Balkans at a big conference called “Speak up!”

Let me summarize my viewpoints on the current situation in Turkey. The latest report by Freedom House, which describes Turkey as “partly free,” is a serious indicator of a deviation from the Copenhagen Criteria. There are several factors that require an SOS signal when it comes to free speech issues and press freedoms.

1) The laws: Five legal codes that “cover” the area are all problematic. The Turkish Penal Code (TCK), the Internet Law, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) Law, the Press Law and the Counterterrorism Law (TMK) include more than 25 articles that curb freedom, and many of them are implemented in ways that are fiercely in disfavor of the media.

2) Legal precedents: The high judiciary continues to set precedents that consolidate a climate in which the media and individuals publish news and comment in fear and under threat of being prosecuted.

3) Arrests and prison sentences: Long arrest periods have become the norm. Because of the blurred formulations of restrictive articles, it is impossible to distinguish where free journalism ends and where “crime” begins. The TMK causes serious problems in that context. No journalist should be put under arrest for professional conduct.

4) The government: It must stop addressing the press in menacing terms and “encouraging” prosecutors to take action on exercises of free speech that it does not like. It lacks respect for the diversity and independence of the media.

5) Parliament and a culture of intolerance: In the past nine years of Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rule, there has been almost no example of either a stance or a push for pro-press freedom by the opposition as a whole. On the contrary, it was the Republican People’s Party (CHP) that added the “humiliation of Atatürk clause” to the Internet Law. Both the CHP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) remain indifferent to a change to Article 301 of the TCK, free speech rights in Kurdish and harassment of their Kurdish colleagues. Today, Parliament as a whole is part of the problem, not the solution.

6) The judiciary: Its role as a “pro-restrictive” force in cases related to journalists covering politically charged cases like Ergenekon and also stories about the judiciary itself leaves no doubt. There is also reason to believe that a part of the judiciary piles up thousands of cases to make life difficult for the government, simply because it is hostile to it.

7) Media proprietors: It is they who are fully responsible for sanctioning the firing of columnists for political reasons, in order to appease the powers that be in order to gain and expand economic favors granted by such powers. None of them seem to have understood that their role does not include daily interference by shaping the content and front pages of newspapers, or what is broadcast by the TV stations they own; a politically/economically corrupt media cannot in a credible manner cover corruption and monitor those in power. They are the cause of “primal fear” among journalists today here, the fear of being fired for what they write and publish.

8) Editors and journalists: They are too polarized to defend their freedom and independence, not only against political powers but also against financial ones. They must also set an example through respect for diverse opinions in their own institutions and not silence people because of their views. They need urgently to discuss ethical issues before politics.


Journalists’ ‘real fear’ in Turkey

Nobody disputes the fact that free speech and media freedoms are worrisome issues in today’s Turkey. Yet, there is a disturbing cacophony among my local colleagues when it comes to detecting the sources of such problems, exposing the culprits and diagnosing the chronic maladies that affect the profession.

What is worse, the cacophony, which is aimed at creating confusion for foreign observers and decision makers, is deliberately spread. Cynicism and partisanship have been basic elements that pollute the conduct of journalists here. No wonder undue simplifications are common among them.

Whenever the topic of freedom is evoked, I feel compelled to interfere in order to set the record straight. As the first journalist who introduced the American concept of “news ombudsmanship” 10 years ago here, and as the only news ombudsman in the world who was fired by the proprietor (Aydın Doğan) in 2004 simply for criticizing a totally fabricated news story (i.e. for expressing an independent viewpoint) and as an “outside observer” of the media patterns that curb its freedoms, I object to distortions, biased narratives and the act of “living in lies” by many of my colleagues simply because I may have “memory overload.”

Let me take it point by point.

According to Freedom House, Turkey is “partly free.” The situation -- like that of Hungary, Mexico and South Korea -- has worsened considerably lately. Imprisonment has become a norm, and due to the Counterterrorism Law (TMK), our Kurdish and leftist colleagues have been targeted. This is shameful indeed.

Around 5,000 of our colleagues who try to cover politically sensitive trials and who publish critical stories about the judiciary itself face trial. The legislation is restrictive: There are more than four main laws that help make Turkey “partly free,” and the government remains indifferent to amending them. But my agreement with my colleagues ends here. So deep is the loyalty to ideology and fear of one’s superior among many of them that their shortsightedness becomes inevitable. The story is not only about the political pressure, but the fact that they distort.

One late example of such misrepresentation belongs to Amberin Zaman, a colleague who writes for Habertürk and The Economist. Until recently Zaman was rather sharp in her analytical skills, but no longer.

In an article for the German Marshall Fund (GMF), she outlines three categories of pressure: a) TMK (too narrow in scope), b) “Arm twisting by the prime minister” and c) Fethullah Gülen. What makes this categorization when it comes to points b and c so unfortunate is not only their shortsightedness, but the risk that it discredits the writer fully before her readers. The one on Gülen is nothing more than fiction. The fact that the authorities filed about 400 lawsuits against reporters of the Zaman daily (followed by Taraf) simply for news stories says enough about this claim. Amberin Zaman also deliberately forgets to mention the fact that Gülen recently called for tolerance and respect in the face of criticism of his person and the movement.

She also mentions the sacking of Andrew Finkel by Today’s Zaman, which was, true, an unfortunate, wrong act. It should never have happened. Yet, while mentioning the Finkel case, she ignores the recent sacking of columnist Cüneyt Ülsever and the discontinuing of the columns of Tufan Türenç by the owner of Hürriyet. Because she obviously does not want us to realize that media moguls are the threats to press freedoms here today.

So works selectiveness when analyzing problems. After all, the crucial question for us is this: Who is the journalist really afraid of today in Turkey? The law, the government, the judiciary or the police?

Journalists here have always fought boldly against the curbing of freedoms. Despite “arm twisting,” a fierce anti-government press -- Sözcü, Cumhuriyet, Yeniçağ, etc. -- is daily in action. Taraf does not mince its words, either.

The answer is simple: They are mostly afraid of being sacked by their bosses, of losing their job because of what they write and publish. This, today, is the number one cause of censorship and self-censorship in Turkey. It is our sad reality -- the heart of the matter that remains “unspoken” by my colleagues in the so-called mainstream media. It is much easier to blame the government for creating such “fear.”

Remzi Lani, executive director of Albanian Media Institute, was spot on when he, in the excellent article “Balkan Media: Lost in Translation,” described the real threats to journalism in the Balkans, which also apply fully to Turkey: “The media in the region are not faced any longer with government pressure to the extent that they were up until a few years ago. Now the media face capitalistic trends and financial pressures such as foreign capital, distribution, transparency, ownership, labor policy and corruption. Hence, a media proletariat is now a new emerging phenomenon in the Balkans. Nowadays bosses and editors pose more of a direct or immediate threat to journalists than governments do. Therefore, the hot issues in the region are now focused on the relations between media organizations and their employees, the labor market, professional unions and media ownership. This is an agenda that needs to be faced.”


WikiLeaks Turkey (8): ‘Ankara only hope for Syria’

Quo vadis? The question about what is next for Syria today is one that multiplies the concerns geometrically about Arab unrest. For 40 years, what made the hard Baathist regime survive was the defining feature of Hafez al-Assad -- pure shrewdness combined with ruthless behavior. The legacy is, as the cycle of bloody events show, still very strong.

So, in the specific case of Syria, the international community has to deal as much with fear as trust. The latter has been a key issue in the approach to Damascus, and now it has to be tested to its very limits.

An in-depth look at the WikiLeaks cables on Turkish-Syrian-American relations tells a story of caution, suspicion, tiny hopes and preparedness for a backlash: the American side did not discourage the Turks from trying to get closer to the young Assad, but it always took it with a grain of salt. Overall, there was common ground between Ankara and Washington, D.C., with regard to Syria as both countries believed it was worth a try to pull Syria out of the iron fist of the Assad clan and its corrupt backers, in addition to ending its isolation and endorsing reforms in favor of democracy and the free market. “The Turks, led by PM Erdogan [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan], FonMin Gul [Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül], and chief foreign policy advisor Davutoglu [Ahmet Davutoğlu], are selling improved relations with Syria as a major foreign policy success. GOT [government of turkey] leaders cast Turkey as a channel of communication for the US and Israel with Syria and as a friend that can support economic reform. At the same time our GOT interlocutors view Assad’s control as too fragile to sustain anything but economic reform. In this context, Erdogan has promoted his Dec. 22-23 visit to Damascus and Aleppo as a huge step forward. Erdogan reportedly raised Iraq and Middle East peace issues, but apparently received nothing new from Assad. MFA contact spun the signing of a free trade agreement as ‘the highlight’ of the visit. We pushed back that this is the wrong approach to take with Syria,” wrote Robert Deutsch, a former charge d’affaires of the US Embassy in Ankara, in a “confidential” cable on Jan. 18, 2005, weeks after Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Syria.

Deutsch wrote in another cable (April 15, 2005) that even (former) Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer “encouraged Assad to ‘continue’ with internal reforms. … With great satisfaction, (Turkish senior) diplomat Celikkol claimed that Sezer’s visit had strengthened the hand of Assad and other reformers against hard-liners who want to maintain the status quo.”

But the American skepticism persisted. The picture becomes quite clear in a cable written in July 22, 2005, by Nancy McEldowney, charge d’affaires of the embassy, when we learn that Turks also raise deep suspicions: “(Syrian Deputy FM) [Walid] al-Muallim met with FM Gul in Ankara July 22 to discuss Iraq, the Israel Palestine peace process and a possible upcoming ‘unofficial’ visit to Turkey by Bashar Assad. One MFA official told us privately that the discussions were difficult and inconclusive; another emphasized the strong message Gul and (undersecretary) Tuygan delivered on Iraq. After the meeting, Gul expressed anger at the way the Syrians are ‘using’ the Turks.”

But the absence of confidence did not halt the Turkish efforts. In the meantime, several cables emphasized that the core or “realism” in Ankara’s policies has a value, and the Turks correctly work hard to end Syria’s isolation, to stop any sectarian violence that may erupt and break the Iran-Syria axis. By October 2009, the American ambivalence seemed in line with the one in Ankara: Turkish policies on Syria encouraged Assad to hold on to his iron grip and resist change, but also seemed to be the only ray of hope to move Damascus away from its axis with Teheran.

In a “secret” cable sent by US Charge d’Affairs Charles Hunter in Damascus, Oct. 28, 2009, the conclusion reflects the persistent dilemma: “Turkey’s methodical deepening of relations with Damascus offers Syria a strategic buffer against international pressure and a ready mediator willing to help Syria mend strained relations with neighbors, such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and even Lebanon. In the long run, Assad’s increasing trust of PM Erdogan offers the best hope of luring Syria out of Tehran’s orbit.” As of now, Assad has been losing his friends in Ankara. He abused his relations, hesitated in reform, resorted to extreme violence and may have gotten a one-way ticket out of power. Calculations have changed. It is now too late to put things on the right track. That Ankara can save him looks utterly doubtful. Every day that passes, the Assad clan moves back to isolation, and chaos.


Center of destruction

In the words of a Turkish proverb, “A madman throws a stone into a well and it takes 40 wise men to pull it out.”

One can dismiss the latest Supreme Election Board (YSK) scandal with such a reference, but it would be foolish to do so. That a 16th largest economy in the world and key regional player has been wasting its energy in an endless debate on whether some of its citizens are eligible to run in elections must be explained in sharper terms than mere foolishness.

The YSK jeopardized an already vulnerable, “razor’s edge” social peace by nitpicking details from badly written laws in a “legally fundamentalist” manner and pushing already outraged Kurds onto the streets, only to backpedal from its position 48 hours later. Are its members responsible for the damage caused to the human lives and goods? They are. Yet, nobody is demanding full-scale accountability for this archaic action, simply because 11 members of the board, whose origins as high judges at the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State, cannot be held accountable because their decisions are final.

Why? Because the catastrophically written, pro-authoritarian, “control freak” Constitution of 1980 says so.

In such a milieu, it is easier for the common man to take it to the streets, or be angry at those who throw stones. Even intellectuals en masse miss the target and blame Kurds or react with surprise when there is violence. Still, despite many years of substantial reforms, understanding the rage of Palestinians and their violence is much easier than that of Kurds.

Condemning violence is a given; it is unacceptable. But why people resort to it must be understood properly.

Orhan Miroğlu, a Kurdish intellectual and columnist, drew our attention to some statistical data yesterday. He tells us that according to one survey, Kurds prefer books on psychology to anything else. No wonder, says Miroğlu (who barely escaped an assassination, while the respected Kurdish intellectual, Musa Anter, was “executed” in a dark street), that they do. If there were an international exam on loyalty to a country, despite everything done to cut the ties to it, Kurds would win by a large margin, he adds. When one remembers mass graves, burned villages, deportations, summary executions, torture, denial of identity and poverty, he is spot on.

Now, he is worried that the “end of the road” is near. Miroğlu sees an uninterrupted pattern in Ankara, with the YSK move as the latest example. The “inner state” is determined to keep the Kurdish will out of the democratic game, it is decided to harass the free Kurdish vote, and therefore prefers that people see “mountain warfare” as the only remaining means for expressing their voices.

Since decisions such as that of the YSK can only cause consequences of deep alienation and mistrust among a segment of the electorate, it cannot be explained by myopia; there is much more to it.

It is the ghost of tutelage, alive and well. It wants to decide for people who they are allowed to elect -- or not.

This should also be a new wakeup call for all those who objectively want to see where the heart of the matter is. That the ruling AK Party may have lost its pace or its compass for reforms, that it may have moved into the area of conformism, but the fact remains the same. The “old” Turkey, still in full denial of today’s world, unleashes all of its mechanisms to derail progress, and lead it to a domain where chaos may serve its archaic purposes.

This is the old versus the new. Every anomaly and folly (in appearance) these days proves only one point: Turkey can no longer move ahead with the current constitution, the unamended laws and dusty institutions of 1980. A militarist and despotic culture, which has kept Turkey in a cage and its citizens as poor cavies who attack each other whenever they are electrified, has become a huge stumbling block. Osman Can, a former rapporteur of the Constitutional Court, called the latest YSK scandal “the magnificent parade of anachronism.”

The destructive center against the democracy is now well-known and it is only civilian politics that is up to the task of burying it.


WikiLeaks Turkey (7): Engines of new politics

“[Abdullah] Gül was sworn in at 6 p.m. local. All but the Republican People’s Party (CHP) attended the voting; CHP continued its boycott of both the vote and the swearing in. The Turkish General Staff (TGS) did not attend the swearing in.

Gül’s ascendancy to the presidency -- Atatürk’s seat in Çankaya -- remains a difficult pill to swallow for the military and staunch secularists. How it plays will depend on how both Gül and PM [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s soon-to-be-formed new government deal with the inevitable scrutiny by the secular opposition and institutions strongly backed by the military.”

The date was Aug. 28, 2007. Parliament’s election of Gül as president had a profound meaning for the democratization of Turkey. The very same day, the US Embassy in Ankara noted the importance of the event in a cable sent by Janice G. Weiner, the political counselor. That it was titled “All eyes on President Gül” and summarized the huge turmoil preceding the election was telling enough. In an official Turkey transfixed in political symbols to the point of obsession, Gül’s entry into a rather “symbolic” post meant a threshold for defeating the frozen values carried through by “captains of tutelage.”

WikiLeaks cables, published by the Taraf daily, shed a strong light on the event itself. Americans, weary of a relationship built upon a growing mistrust and weaker communications with the military, saw a window of opportunity with the election of Gül. Most of all, it was seen as a turning point for Turkey’s active role in its region.

There was certainly a lot to mention. The day following the election another cable, titled “Risks, challenges, opportunities,” was written and sent by Ross Wilson, then the ambassador in Ankara, who did not conceal his admiration. “One has to blink twice to be sure it really happened,” he wrote and added that it is a “victory for grit and determination.”

A quick look at some excerpts tell us enough of Turkey in 2007 in order to compare it to today: “In hindsight, Gül appears to have maintained his resolve throughout: For much of the general election campaign, Gül was paired with Erdoğan as a star attraction. The undemocratic interruption of the presidential election was an AKP [Justice and Development Party] campaign centerpiece. Gül personified AKP determination to stand up to the Turkish General Staff (TGS) and overcame a concerted military/Republican People’s Party (CHP) assault on democracy and representative political institutions. Despite the old elite’s efforts to define the debate as secularism versus Sharia, Gül (and AKP) successfully framed the issue as one of democracy and stability versus militarism and the past.

“The domestic side will be more of a tightrope as Gül seeks -- in a still contentious atmosphere -- to help normalize Turkey and Turkish life, including on issues like the role and status of religion (Islam, but Christianity as well); Turkey’s diversity and minorities (including Kurds); the role of the military and proper civil-military relations; and the judiciary and judicial reform, which is key to strengthening the rule of law in this country. Any one of these sets of issues is problematic; in combination, they are a big challenge and potentially dangerous for Gül and for Turkey’s future.

“The new president … may also confront judicial challenges, particularly from prickly secularist prosecutors. He will need to re-calibrate his relationship with PM Erdoğan and balance fulfillment of his transformational ambitions for Turkey with the need to avoid a harsh reaction from the secularist street, the military and Kemalist hard-liners who could still bring the reform Turkey project crashing down.

“Gül, Erdoğan and to some extent Turkey as a whole have taken an enormous risk with a Gül presidency. But progress rarely comes without risk. Gül’s rise represents a watershed. The opportunity is in the new president and AKP’s hands to move toward the more equal and tolerant society. Gül’s inaugural remarks called for and toward the final end of the ‘deep state.’ If the reformers succeed, their success will belong to them and the Turkish people. Failure will rest on their shoulders alone.”

So ends Wilson’s “confidential” cable. It is still very valid in its insightful focus on the problematic areas. While Turkey has since 2007 come a long way in consolidating its economy in an unstable world, and pushed through an assertive role in global politics, it was not equally courageous domestically to expand freedoms and rights -- individual and collective -- and it shied away for “fighting intolerance with zero tolerance.”

Hopes are accumulated, once more, on the Parliament to be formed after the June elections. The claim is still there: It must be Gül and Erdoğan, as the “engines of change,” who are expected together to manage a speedier, deeper reform process, no matter what the EU mumbles.


WikiLeaks Turkey (6): Spotlight on Abdullah Gül

Ever since the transformation of the “National View” (Milli Görüş) from initially rather radical Islamic roots, one figure came to the fore as the “engine of change.”

It was the soft-spoken, mild-mannered, fluent English and Arabic-speaking Abdullah Gül, who had a profound patience to listen, genuine tolerance for dissenting views and a natural curiosity to understand global trends in politics.

He would later be part of the “founding quartet” (together with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Bülent Arınç and, to a lesser degree, Abdüllatif Şener) that engineered the formation of what is today known as the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

It came as no surprise that Erdoğan, kept out of politics due to a hostile judiciary that banned him from being elected, entrusted the post of prime minister to his “brother,” Gül.

Two days before Gül declared his cabinet, the US Embassy was already in action, sending his detailed portrait (classified “confidential”), written by Robert Deutsch, then charge d’affaire in Ankara, to Washington. Not just limiting itself to an ordinary biography, the cable goes on at length in describing who the “real” Gül is:

“Gül is a long-time, close contact of the Embassy in Ankara. He has an excellent understanding of the American mind and of US foreign policy priorities. For years he served as a de facto spokesman -- judged to be reasonable and open-minded by Western and Islamist interlocutors -- for Refah and Fazilet and has been an influential and moderate voice for Islam-oriented politics in Turkey. A number of long-standing embassy contacts have told us consistently that the relationship between Gül and party chairman Erdoğan is complex. He is loyal to Erdoğan but has his own ambitions and occasionally in comments to us has chafed at his subordination to the more rough-edged Erdoğan. Both came through the Erbakan movement ranks together, with Gül representing the more technocratic stream. While Erdoğan is far and away the most popular figure in the AK Party, Gül has strong grass roots and parliamentary support of his own and has built a formidable network of relations with politicians of all stripes, bureaucrats, academics and journalists.”

“Gül has an obliging (mulayim) and courteous character stemming from his modest and very pious upbringing. His faith in Islam is rock solid, as is his courage of convictions: Gül is no pushover.”

“He also firmly believes in the need to redress the current imbalance in civilian-military relations, privately telling us forthrightly that if pushing this kind of democratic reform would be considered “destabilizing” by the Kemalist establishment, ‘then so be it’.” This kind of comment, combined with Gül’s knowledge of the system and his smooth manner, leads some Kemalist circles to fear that he would succeed in implementing an Islamist agenda effectively. Gül has the serene but focused temperament (huzur) similar to that of late president Turgut Özal. At the same time he is untainted by the corruption surrounding the Özal family and government.”

We find another comment in a cable dated Nov. 22, 2002, similar to the conclusion of Deutsh. Another officer in Ankara, Nicholas Kass, ends his family portrait:

“Gül is widely regarded even by many Kemalist secularists as an engaging, tolerant man, though one with deep convictions. These traits, and the evident importance of Islam to the Gül family, reflect a cardinal Özalist virtue that is a key to success in Turkish politics and to Turkish social peace: to be at once both modern and forward looking, yet with an abiding respect for the religious and traditional values.”

Gül would not disappoint those who value his “soft decisiveness.” When Turkey was dragged into turmoil by a military-dictated e-memo and a farce of a judicial decision (by the Constitutional Court) blocking his candidacy as the president, he seemed to be fully focused on his aim: to be elected no matter what.

In a cable written by Janice G. Weiner, the title (“FM Gül as the behind-the-scenes master”) predicts correctly the outcome of the presidential elections two months later.

Not only that. We learn from the cable that it was – as claimed here – Gül himself who penned the famous, harsh cabinet response to the e-memo by the General Staff.

“Once the Turkish General Staff released its e-memo late on April 27, it was allegedly Gül, not the PM, who persuaded the AK Party to take the democratic high road and hard line reflected in GOT [Government of Turkey] spokesman Cemil Cicek’s April 28 statement (ref A), which Gül reportedly penned.”

“One frequent TGS [Turkish General Staff] accusation has been that the AK Party has a hidden agenda. Gül had rebutted it consistently, pointing to the raft of political and economic reforms the AK Party government has passed, and asking rhetorically if they would be working hard to harmonize Turkish law with EU law if GOT’s agenda were sharia.”

This is not the end of the attention, naturally. There are more comments about the “new president” and his vision. But that is material for another column.


Wikileaks Turkey (5): Chronicle of a murder foretold

One of the most striking sections of the US diplomatic cables from Turkey, published continuously these days by the Taraf daily, is about the “monster” -- a deadly mixture of ultranationalism and racism in Turkey -- which creeps in from 2004 onwards and spreads fear among all who endorse reform and culminates with the murder of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink.

It is early 2004. As the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) steps on the gas pedal of the EU-backed reform process, its sworn adversaries move about behind closed doors, and many dark forces regroup. The aim of the latter -- with strong links to the military, dirty warriors, judiciary and media -- is to paralyze the government by frightening in particular the non-Muslim minorities (a soft target) and create an impression abroad that Turkey is shifting into “Islamofascism.”

The existence of the reform process means that the genie is out of the bottle. Exposing the ghosts of the past is part of the game. This is exactly what happened when the Armenian-Turkish weekly AGOS published an article, saying that the adopted daughter of “founding father” Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Sabiha Gökçen, was actually an Armenian orphan.

The publication created a storm within the traditionally Kemalist media. In a “how-dare-you” exclamation of a campaign, Hrant Dink, publisher of AGOS, came under fire. Soon after the then-columnist of Hürriyet Emin Çölaşan writes two threatening columns about the story, and the General Staff issues a harsh statement labeling the publication “a groundless campaign against Atatürk nationalism and national values,” David Arnett, then-Consul General of the US in İstanbul, wrote in a cable sent to Washington. The story, he said, “has exposed an ugly streak of racism in Turkish society. The reports led to a number of prominent figures to make racist remarks ‘defending’ Gokcen, which in turn prompted criticism from more open-minded columnists. Perhaps the most alarming result, however, has been an intensely personal campaign by die-hard nationalists against the editor of the Armenian weekly newspaper that first broke the story.” Arnett correctly pinpointed where the danger lay in the following paragraph and concludes with a clear warning for the days ahead.

“The publication of these claims has led die-hard nationalist members of the İstanbul branch of the Nationalist Action Party-affiliated ‘ideological hearths’ to launch a personal campaign attacking Hrant Dink, the editor of AGOS. While Dink has not been specifically criticized for publishing the story on Gokcen, the publicity it generated prompted some nationalists to use a previous Dink editorial to label him as a ‘traitor.’ This campaign has so far included hostile phone calls to Dink and a Feb. 26 demonstration outside the AGOS offices by 40 or so aggressive, taunting protesters. Clearly distraught and upset by the attacks, Dink confessed to poloff [political officer of the embassy] that he has even considered abandoning the newspaper.

“These developments spotlight the racism underlying Turkish nationalism. The outrage by Turkey’s secular establishment also reflects its hyper-sensitivity to any perceived attacks on Kemalist ideology. We can expect that any attempt to debate establishment-imposed notions of secularism or the meaning of Turkishness will continue to bring out sentiments incompatible with Turkey’s professed adherence to universal norms or EU standards.”

Let us now move to Feb. 9, 2007. It is three weeks after the heinous murder of Dink. The US Embassy in Ankara sends a detailed (“confidential”) analysis, titled “Nationalism turning nasty in Turkey.” “The Dink assassination offered a brief window of sanity,” it said, “but subsequent nationalist backlash indicates the depth of the divide in Turkish society.” The cable then goes on to describe the “shyness” of the AK Party, which, as well as its political rivals, wants to play the nationalist card in the upcoming elections. The critique addresses the entire political spectrum. It points at dangers inherent in Article 301 of the Penal Code (TCK), which criminalizes “insulting Turkishness.”

“The voices in the wilderness have come from intellectuals, who have taken a stand in favor of abolishing 301 because, in their view, it fuels nationalism and puts at risk outspoken thinkers, such as Hrant Dink, whose ideas are essential to advancing Turkey’s democratic debate and continuing to break down taboos,” the cable says. In conclusion, it criticizes the lack of leadership in the AK Party in dealing with tough issue and ends in gloomy tones:

“Erdoğan and the AKP, rather than taking bold steps and helping to shape the public debate, seem intimidated by the prospects of elections. Rather than leading, they are allowing public opinion to lead them. The Dink murder should have made it clear that playing the nationalist card may have seemed expedient, but instead unleashes danger. By not exercising leadership, [the] AKP risks a more volatile electorate and helps to revive a nationalist hydra that could prove exceedingly difficult to put back in the box once the elections are behind them.”


WikiLeaks Turkey (4): Any coup ahead?

In the spring of 2003, Şenkal Atasagun, then-director of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), met with a group of journalists in Ankara over lunch. He informed them off the record to “keep an eye on the 1st Army [in İstanbul]. They are preparing a coup over there…”

Mustafa Balbay, then-chief of the Ankara bureau of Cumhuriyet -- a Kemalist daily, put this quote in his diary (now part of the evidence in the Ergenekon trial) and did nothing to chase this potentially explosive story to expose whatever truth lay behind it. What Cumhuriyet did, instead, was to publish a completely different “story” (based on an anonymous source within the top command) headlined “Young officers feel uneasy” on May 23, 2003. The headline hinted at “growing disgruntlement” within the army against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.

Then-Chief of General Staff Gen. Hilmi Özkök (having already confronted Çetin Doğan, the commander of the 1st Army, with his coup plans tête-à-tête in early May), met with the press three days after the Cumhuriyet story and lashed out at the anonymous source, indicating that a campaign of manipulation through the press was already in action. The “cool” and rational top general was obviously under immense heat at the time. Ankara was close to the boiling point, and it would not go unnoticed by the US Embassy.

Robert Pearson, the US ambassador those days, chose the dramatic title “Defining the Republic of Turkey: The General Staff and government struggle with themselves and each other” for a lengthy “secret” cable he sent to Washington on June 6, 2003. Pearson analyzes in detail why the top officers were unhappy and why the coup was almost impossible at the time. The top brass is, he wrote, “Unhappy within itself (Özkök is being pressed by a group of six to eight senior officers who hold what a broad range of journalist, political, and national security analyst contacts characterize for us as ‘Eurasianist, status quo, keep-military-procurement-secret’ views…”

The army is, he continued, “Unhappy with the AK government, which proclaims itself conservative-democratic, but which the TGS [Turkish General Staff] and most of the rest of the Kemalist Establishment … charge is both incompetent and carrying an Islamist torch. … Unhappy with the fact, flexibility and speed of change in the world. … Unhappy with change at home, where social change from below, a growing freedom of debate about many hitherto taboo subjects, and the government’s attempt to avoid submitting its newest package of EU Copenhagen Criteria-related reforms to the military-dominated NSC [National Security Council (MGK)] for review all suggest that, as ordinary Turks consider where their country should go, the Turkish military is beginning to lose its position as the ultimate arbiter of republican probity.”

The cable explained further that the “lone ranger” Özkök was trying to achieve a number of goals with the press conference, denying Cumhuriyet’s report: Among them were preventing such stories to come out in the press; presenting the army as “monolithic” on major issues; declaring that the TGS and the AK Party government are not on the same wavelength; rejecting any discussion of a coup “under this roof” but to leave the public at large on alert by emphasizing that the armed forces will continue their secularist struggle within the constitutional framework; and defending himself against charges against him that he is too democratic and Western-oriented to be a strong guardian of core “secularist” values.

But he did not convince his opponents, the cable argued, and puts forth a list of names. “Our defense and national security contacts identify seven of the generals opposed to Özkök as Land Forces Commander [Aytaç] Yalman, Jandarma Commander [Şener] Eruygur, First Army Commander Doğan, Aegean Army Commander [Hurşit] Tolon, Second Army Commander [Fevzi] Türkeri, and NSC SecGen [Tuncer] Kılınç, with [Yaşar] Büyükanıt described as playing it both ways.” Furthermore, the cable predicted that “he [Özkök] can retire two of this group in summer 2003, and two more in summer 2004. He will promote a significant number of three- and four-star generals and can change up to 80% of the senior TGS staff this year.” It proved to be partially true: Doğan and Kılınç were retired in 2003; Yalman and Eruygur in 2004. Pearson warned the story does not reach a “happy ending” despite his finding that no coup seemed likely in 2003. He concluded: “What is clear is that Özkök’s briefing neither satisfied those in the military who oppose his approach nor intimidated AK. The tensions between the military and AK, and within each institution, will continue and affect Turkey’s ability to set itself on a consistent course in any direction.”

Indeed. From mid 2003 on, Turkey entered stormy waters, marked by strong tension, murders, further coup planning, a closure case and shocking revelations about the military. The cable emphasizes -- indirectly -- the importance of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, and its findings highlight further the value of a full testimony by Özkök -- a key witness of “interesting times.”


WikiLeaks Turkey (3): an X-Ray of the ‘deep state’

“In every bureaucracy and every ilçe (provincial county), the deep state has individuals it can rely on to (1) keep tabs on internal developments and (2) to make clear the deep state position on particular issues that concern national security.

This system involves not only ministries, such as the Interior Ministry, which traditionally have been associated with maintaining domestic peace and order, but education and others deemed to play an essential role in maintaining the dominance of Kemalist institutions and ideas. Someone in each ilçe will have the keys to the local arsenal… A local Education Ministry rep will know that he is slated to become rector of a certain university some years down the line if he carries out his deep state functions well…”

This was the description by an insightful source -- with a background from a key ministry -- conveyed in October 2002 to the US ambassador at the time, Robert Pearson, who sent a cable on Nov. 15 of that year to the US State Department, concluding that “the Deep State is beginning to be challenged with an openness rare in the history of the Turkish Republic. The push is step by step. It must contend with centuries of ingrained habit and fear.”

“Step by step,” it would prove to be, indeed. But the steps would be too slow and, often moved back and forth. When some years had passed after the Pearson cable, another cable (classified “confidential”) sent to Washington, D.C., in Jan. 30, 2008, by Sharon Wiener, then US consul general in İstanbul, was adding some names to the picture.

“Allegedly, this extra-legal grouping works to influence and deliver public support behind actions by real state actors, often the military. Some, such as former Prime Minister and President Süleyman Demirel, voice support for this power center. Current PM Erdoğan apparently opposes it and is looking for ways to subvert if not destroy it… Successful prosecution of a deep state network would strike a blow against nationalist impunity and demonstrate a strong commitment to rule of law.”

In Nov. 21, 2008, US diplomats were offered an opportunity to share a detailed “expert view” on a product of the “Shadow State.” In a briefing, the Turkish National Police gave an extended description of how they believe the secret network, called Ergenekon, developed at the local and central level. “Briefers emphasized the key role played by former Gen. Veli Küçük, who they said had personally directed several murders.” The cable went on, also mentioning a former head of think tank ASAM as personally involved. The US Embassy’s political counselor, Daniel O’Grady, sent a “confidential” cable dated Nov. 24, detailing some key elements of the deep state.

“Ergenekon … had recruited members from right-wing nationalist groups whose adherents seemed appropriately extremist. It had produced various pamphlets and books, containing assertions such as: Turkish civilian governments have been ‘the servant of the West throughout history’; Turkey has been ‘invaded’ by foreigners and missionaries; democracy is not suitable for Turks; the Army has to intervene; Kurds are the main source of crimes in western Turkey; Kurdish population growth must be stopped; the EU and US contacts threaten the sovereignty of the Turkish government; Turkey is under the control of minorities; actions against Armenians are legitimate; selling lands to Brits and Germans and Israelis is an ‘invasion.’ The police briefers stated that Ergenekon had resolved to contact various terrorist groups to advance its goals of fomenting chaos and instability in Turkey, and had also proposed to establish fake terrorist organizations. Its contacts included the Turkish Mafia; IBDA/C, which aims to re-establish the Caliphate; Hizbuttahrir; and DHKP/C, which ‘is understood’ to have killed industrialist özdemir Sabanci on the orders of former General Veli Küçük.”

Tough as it may have been even for well-informed US diplomats to decode Turkey’s deep state, it is easier to look at the high record of unsolved political crimes. One fresh example of the “haunting truth” was published by a daily two days ago. It was about the massacre of political prisoners in Bayrampaşa Prison in İstanbul in December 2000. The documents revealed that the local gendarmerie command had, against the will and demands of the government, secretly prepared a plan (called Tufan) for the indiscriminate killing of all prisoners, who were on a hunger strike. Thirty of them died. The case against the security staff has been almost dead, proceeding for 10 years at a snail’s pace.

The question was obvious. It would never be for a local unit to prepare a plan like this. The response came from the Minister of Justice at that time, Ahmet Sami Türk, who said that the “National Security Council [MGK] had decided to stop the actions in prisons no matter what.” He was then not “entitled” to take part in the MGK’s meetings, he said. Search for “MGK” in the cables that I refer to in my three latest articles, in the context of the Deep State, and you will be easily guided to its true nature and raison d’etre.


WikiLeaks Turkey (2): An X-Ray of the ‘deep state’

The most resistant structure of a secretive “state within” in the post-Cold War era proved to be the one that belonged to Turkey. There was a specific reason for that.

With a republic founded on non-transparent, oppressive, violent rule in the early 1920s, it could only welcome the instruments that the Cold War later offered -- to keep society as a “frozen” entity, engineer it and interfere whenever the foundations were perceived to be “under threat” by civilian politics from the 1950s onwards. Strengthened and justified, it was a tough nut to crack.

It would take, therefore, more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a huge economic crisis, for the Turkish “state within,” popularly called the “deep state,” to show serious cracks. So, after five decades of civilian politics often harassed and operating “at gunpoint,” a question became urgent when the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in November 2002 with a sweeping victory that wiped out 80 percent of the old political class: “Will the deep state allow this party to conduct normal politics, as it promised the voters?”

The landslide of AK Party was a real wake-up call for a new path, leading to a new Turkey. A threshold was obviously being passed. So, without delay, the American ambassador in Ankara, Robert Pearson, sent a “secret” cable to the State Department two weeks after the elections.

Titled “Turkey’s Deep State,” it is impressive in its sharp insight into what it analyzes and fills in the blanks with authority (simply because Americans do share the collective memory of the Cold War with Turks). The rationale for the cable was simple. “Now,” it said, “Deep State supremacy is being challenged step by step with an openness rare in the history of the Turkish Republic.” It was clear that, as of 2002, “a great majority of Turks is frustrated, distrustful, even fearful of the State as an increasingly out-of-date, authoritarian, inefficient and unaccountable brake on their freedoms.”

What is the deep state? The secret cable, dated Nov. 15, 2002, then goes into detail, describing it: “One former [National Security Council ] NSC staffer explained to us that the heart of the Deep State is the presidency (which on paper has limited powers), the military (which formally reports to the P.M.), and the (formally independent) judiciary. The staffer … explained further that the elected government is only the Deep State’s servant. While the Deep State influences government activity, the government has virtually no influence on the Deep State…

“Contacts remind us that at times the Deep State has relied on extra-judicial enforcement of its views. While this usually means use of hints or indirect intimidation, in the past it has also involved an unsavory nexus among security and intelligence services; the armed forces; and groups such as (Turkey’s) Hizbullah and mafias fostered by them.”

While the military justifies its presence at the heart of the deep state through Article 35 of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) Internal Service Law (which was referred to in the four coups in the past four decades), the cable underlines, there are other key elements that complete the picture. Here comes the role of judiciary as vital.

“A long-serving Justice of the (Turkish) Constitutional Court recently described to us the workings and influence of the Deep State, by which he meant primarily military domination of the Turkish system. The judiciary, he explained, is not independent, but a subordinate, albeit important, part of the wider machinery perpetuating the Kemalist status quo. As he described it, the legal educational system is set up to produce unimaginative, narrow-minded judges and prosecutors indoctrinated with the state’s official Kemalist ideology. More important, judicial fealty to Kemalism and to the Deep State is the result of a fear so pervasive, the Justice asserted, that it is ‘difficult’ for Americans to appreciate. Mindful of the threat of force implicit in the Deep State’s orders to civilians, judges and prosecutors fear that if they deviate from the orthodoxy they will be entangled in career-blunting reprimand procedures, demoted, hounded out of office, or worse.

Those relatively few judicial officials willing to resist such pressure usually are transplants to the judicial bureaucracy from outside that system. “The Justice explained that while the Deep State can make its views clear by directly communicating them through ‘telephone justice’ to judicial officials, word is most often promulgated indirectly through the National Security Council, and by senior journalists who are known to have special relationships with the powers-that-be.”

The cable does not end here. It goes on to analyze the local networks. I will continue to share some other highlights with you. This one does not need any comments, other than being helpful to be able to understand a little more clearly the nasty struggle for power of the past eight years.


Wikileaks Turkey (1): an X-ray of the ‘deep state’

It is Nov. 29, 2002. Three weeks after a sweeping election victory, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government is for the first time eye-to-eye with the military top command at a regular National Security Council (MGK) meeting. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is still out of politics. Abdullah Gül is the prime minister.

“According to reports we have heard, at the Nov. 29 meeting the military seconded by President [Ahmet Necdet] Sezer, made it clear to [the AK Party] its view that the discussion whether to lift the ban against Turkish civil servants’ wearing the headscarf is a non starter. ‘The discussion is over,’ Sezer reportedly told PM Gül. Before the meeting, Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hilmi Özkök and other [TURKISH GENERAL STAFF] commanders limited to an abrupt three minutes their ‘courtesy’ call on new Speaker of Parliament [Bülent] Arınç, who had generated controversy when he had his headscarf-clad wife join him to see off Sezer on a trip abroad late last month. Official photos showed a somewhat stiff, seated Arınç flanked on either side by Özkök and others. The visit stood in marked contrast to an earlier 20-minute call on Gül, whom the military and other elements of the Establishment see as relatively more pragmatic and sensible.” So begins the cable by the US Embassy in Ankara in Dec. 10, 2002. It is written by the then-deputy chief of mission of the US Embassy in Ankara, Robert Deutsch. So begins, too, American monitoring of a painfully bumpy adventure of the AK Party as a ruling political, civilian movement in Turkey.

Given the high number of American cables from Turkey -- all 11,000 of them, a record figure -- there was a moment reason for concern, when the deal between Julian Assange and The New York Times and Guardian went astray. The fear I felt as a journalist was that the “Turkey cables” would not see the light of day. Now, thanks to Taraf daily, day after day, we are getting a chance to look into the “secret Turkey” through the American prism. The material published will be of immense help in shedding light on what has taken place in deep politics. Needless to say, it is a courageous journalistic undertaking.

Back to the end of November 2002: It is the first time the AK Party hits the thick wall of the “state within.” The cable deepens the background: “A former [MGK] staffer … underscored what many others are also telling us: The military is especially concerned that [the AK Party] might try to amend or rewrite the 1982 constitution to change the ‘unamendable’ preamble and articles 1-4, which are designed to freeze Turkey within narrow, if ambiguously defined, ‘secular’ and Ataturkist bounds. Our contact vividly described the atavistic fear among Turkish General Staff officers he knows that [the AK Party], rather than accommodating the military and remainder of the Establishment, will try to transform THEM in an Islamist way.

“A long-serving justice of the Turkish Constitutional Court spoke similarly about the approach of the military and other Establishment elements to [the AK Party]. According to the justice, the biggest problem in trying to set guidelines lies in the ambiguous core of ‘secularism’ and Ataturk’s principles. The military’s broad-brush approach to defining (or avoiding definition of) its terms runs the risk of creating a crisis; [the AK Party] could, in theory, cross a military ‘red line’ without knowing where it is.” Deutsch’s conclusion is an extremely sharp one -- mark the irony in the last phrase -- on the pitfalls and dangers ahead. The starting whistle was heard at the MGK meeting. The scenery was simply this: An introverted and honest supreme court justice (Sezer) was “converted” to stiff Kemalism successfully by the top command with the pretext of the “dangers of a shariah state.” A team of generals -- except Özkök -- determined to “teach lessons” and “tame” the AK Party leaders.

The top army figures were, at that time, rather unsatisfied that the “soft coup” of Feb. 28, 1997 had not gone “all the way” to “wipe out” the “Islamist threat” by any means necessary. Many saw a “mission unaccomplished.” “[The AK Party] is rapidly finding out that moving the entrenched interests of the Establishment is not easy and it remains to be seen whether [The AK Party] can forge an active approach on reform, Cyprus, and other issues of central concern to the US which is digestible by the military and other elements of the State,” was the final conclusion of the cable. When one follows the traffic of cables from those times, it is impossible not be amazed at the profound insight of US diplomats when they deconstruct Turkey’s “deep state.” It is also impossible to understand the Ergenekon network and forces, as prosecutors argue, unleashed by it to stave off, derail and topple an elected, popular government from power.

For those who have not been able to have access (because the mainstream media remains numb), I will continue to highlight some key cables and analyze them.


Tap dancing at the businessmen’s club

When two professors a week ago in a well-attended meeting were through with their presentation of a rough draft constitution, which they had prepared together with some 20 experts and opinion leaders for the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD), Cem Boyner -- a charismatic liberal businessman and the husband of the organization’s president -- took the floor.

He bluntly but gently told the audience that the progressive draft would meet resistance both from within and without. Emphasizing the need to “stand behind” it as a crucial choice “no matter what,” he turned to the members of the board at the podium and said, “If you feel that you cannot carry this through, you had better cut it off right now, right here.”

It was one of the earliest signals of unease creeping in.

Boyner’s words would later be right in their prediction and be confirmed.

After days of intense debate in public, TÜSİAD seems to be at internal pains to be the focal point of accusations from newspaper columns devoted to establishment positions and political parties such as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Boyner had already received the signal. When he returned to his seat, one elderly, conservative and powerful businessman whispered in his ear that he must be congratulated for his intervention. “You were so right in saying that we should cut it off. We really should,” he told Boyner. One can take it for granted he was not alone in thinking so.

So, it is again the old and new TÜSİAD marked for infighting. As the two respected professors boldly declared the infamous introduction to the current Constitution must be abolished and that there must be no unamendable articles except the one underlining the republican character of the country, many members of the organization shifted about tensely in their seats. The draft proposal, sponsored by TÜSİAD, had come as a cold shower for its conservative, Kemalist flank.

The internal frictions must have come to the boiling point because two days ago the board issued a lengthy statement saying “it was not a TÜSİAD proposal,” distancing itself from some main points and principles the draft highlights. It leaves the working team rather alone, and removes some of the weight from what they had concluded, which was initially a powerful entry into the debate.

Now, some members -- remaining anonymous -- complain through columns that the leadership under Ümit Boyner had not informed them -- not even Erkut Yücaoğlu, chairman of the high advisory board of TÜSİAD -- of its content.

This “turn” must cause concern for the debate after the election but is not unusual. When TÜSİAD ordered another draft constitution proposal some 10-12 years ago from the late Professor Bülent Tanör, there were only two people who at that time backed it -- İshak Alaton and Can Paker.

The rest of the membership had not liked what they heard and argued that the organization should not deal with politics but only with business and the employment of the workforce. Those were the hard times under the heavy influence of the military, which was eager to go on with social engineering, so the draft constitution was shelved.

The recent “retreat” of TÜSİAD shows that the great divide between the mainly Kemalist “pro-establishment” flank and reformists continues. It also shows that the organization will feel increased pressure to be part of the national mobilization for a new constitutional order, or stand by and watch with extreme caution.

It is now apparent that TÜSİAD President Ümit Boyner will continue to walk on a tightrope as Turkey enters the elections.

When TÜSİAD announced the report last week, it gave the impression that the powerful figures of business would exert even pressure on all the parties, in particular the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Now, after the declaration, it may have eased it.

An undecided and divided TÜSİAD will not be of much help. Its choices and clear stand remains a hope because it understands that Turkey can no longer proceed with the legacy of the generals of the 1980 coup.


Turkey’s rescue of a reporter

Be it covering earthquake and radiation-hit Japan or the conflict-ridden Middle East and Maghreb, reporters have one of the toughest jobs. Each of these situations has its own peculiar risks, and it is in each such case that a tough call awaits editors.

One of the nastiest conflicts that has been raging for a while is in Libya. It is a civil war, with an uncertain outcome. The conditions have raised the sensitivities of the international community and put challenges on diplomacy. Journalism in this kind of environment is a sort of daredevil act. When one hears that four journalists -- all affiliated with The New York Times -- have been missing for three days, one should be very concerned.

Under such circumstances, good news about the journalists’ fate does not come easily. Some reporters have recently experienced staying at a Libyan jail. One of them was Andrei Netto, a Brazilian correspondent for a Sao Paulo daily. Netto was “arrested” by forces loyal to Gaddafi in Sabratha, a town on the coast, two weeks ago and was moved to a prison outside the capital, Tripoli. He was, after the intervention of the Brazilian authorities, released a week ago.

But, his colleague Ghaith Abdul el-Ahad, who was captured together with him, was not.

Ghaith was covering the conflict for the Guardian. He had entered Libya from Tunisia. The reason he was kept in the prison after the release of Netto was not known. He was not a Brit, but an Iraqi citizen; possibly those who captured him and sent to prison might have thought that he was an agent of some sort.

The person they had picked up was, actually, a highly respected correspondent who has written for the Guardian since 2004. As a Guardian story noted yesterday: “Ghaith has reported from Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan, telling the stories of ordinary people in times of conflict. He has won many of the most prestigious awards available to foreign correspondents, including foreign reporter of the year at the British Press Awards, the James Cameron award and the Martha Gellhorn prize.”

The efforts to rescue him did not produce any results. At that stage, five days ago, I had a conversation with Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, who wondered if Ankara, which these days looks after British interests in Libya, would be of any help at all. We shared grave concerns about Ghaith’s conditions.

From the next day on, both the Turkish Presidency and the Prime Ministry took action. In both offices, officials took the request very seriously, and engaged in very delicate diplomacy, through different channels in Tripoli, to have Ghaith released. The efforts, I am told, were intense.

After two days of silence, I received a late night e-mail from Rusbridger on Tuesday night, expressing strong hope. We crossed our fingers and waited.

On Wednesday evening, when I saw the tweet of the BBC on the release of our colleague, all I felt was a great relief.

I expressed my gratitude to all the people who understood fully the value of the free journalism, the gravity of a captured reporter in a conflict and who -- using the soft, friendly power of Turkey -- contributed to his departure to freedom and safety. Their names will not be mentioned for saving lives, but they know what they have done. I again repeat here my thanks to President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan for their firm commitment to the cause. The result shows how important it is that Turkey today “counts” in conflict resolutions.

Now, it is also time to wish for the best for four others, who are missing. Those are colleagues who work for The New York Times: Anthony Shadid, the Beirut bureau chief and twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting; Stephen Farrell, a reporter and videographer who was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2009 and rescued by British commandos; and two photographers, Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario, who have worked extensively in the Middle East and Africa. Some more good news will not hurt, not at all.

18 March 2011

Secretive journalism

“'In 5,800 original pages [of Ergenekon charges] there is not one shred of proof that this organization exists,' said Gareth Jenkins, a Turkey specialist who has written extensively on the affair.

He has read the entire indictment. ‘They [the Turkish government] have created a fictional organization and used it to go after their political opponents,' he said.”

This quote is from our distinguished colleague Trudy Rubin's column (dated March 13) in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“Political opponents.” Hmmm.

It is not unusual that trials such as “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” will push many outsiders -- journalists, “specialists,” academics and others -- to act like defense lawyers or prosecutors, and it would be wrong to believe that they are all part of a savage campaign for the future of Turkey.

But much more importantly, it will remain a test of honesty and conscience for all of us. These two features will, to the extent that they are guiding lights, put all of us into the corner of shame -- or pride. This will happen with the ability to distinguish right from wrong, just from unjust, innocent from the suspect and from guilty, distortion from precision.

This column has always argued the following: There is not the slightest doubt that there were a series of attempts within -- what Jenkins tries to trivialize as “political opponents” as if we should believe in their legitimacy -- the military headquarters in the past eight years. The question is not if, but who was involved in those anti-constitutional, clandestine activities.

Further, there are increasing question marks on those trials' procedural matters, so that a constant constructive critique is necessary for a fair, efficient, swift trial for justice and for securing Turkey's fragile democracy.

This is the Internet age, which pushes for transparency. As I write these lines, I have already listened to a secretly taped conversation allegedly between the chief military prosecutor of the 1st Army, a colonel and four other military lawyers posted on a website.

If true, this lengthy conversation proves at least my first point, i.e., the question of who was involved in preparing for a coup, and to what extent, so that one can separate the innocent mid and high-ranking officers from responsibility. It is a sensitive case, so I leave it with that “if true.”

As opposed to dishonesty echoing abroad, thankfully we have colleagues with a memory and conscience. One of them is an old friend of mine, İsmet Berkan, ex-editor of the Radikal daily and currently a columnist with Hürriyet.

İsmet's newly published book, titled “Will the military hand over the power to us?” (referring to a remark in 2002 by Hüseyin Çelik, a prominent Justice and Development Party [AK Party] figure), deserves to be a “balancing” rejoinder to Rubin's column, since it sheds light on what really went on behind the curtains in Ankara.

“The documents found thanks to the Ergenekon probe, in particular the ones linked to the second indictment, are full of evidence on how much enmity there is inside the military on AK Party,” writes Berkan.

Page after page, İsmet Berkan goes into concrete details through recollections, conversations and anecdotes. There, one finds responses or confirmations for many questions on why there was “tension” between the top command in Ankara and the 1st Army in İstanbul and why there were massive, unusual troop movements by the 1st Army from İstanbul to elsewhere in early 2003.

There are more interesting details. The book tells of an episode in Ankara. In a meeting at gendarmerie headquarters in January 2004, the proprietor of Doğan Media together with the editor and Ankara bureau chief of Milliyet met with the top generals. Berkan tells in the book that he asked the editor of Milliyet what it was all about. The editor's response was (referring to the generals): “They have all gone crazy. They will stage a coup if one lets them, but they don't dare.”

What would you expect of these journalists? To report the truth, or at least find a way to alert the public to the illegal activity, correct? No, none of that. “Journalists” look the other way and go on with business as usual. Secrets remain a secret until conscientious colleagues reveal them. I need to add that these are the journalists who are among the loudest on the issue of “press freedom” these days. It reveals the typology of “mainstream” journalists in Turkey, and also sheds light on who really defends press freedom today.

16 March 2011

Journalists arrested, media taken hostage

It would have sufficed to write that the recent arrests of two of my colleagues, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, is a misstep that shows how much press freedoms are in danger in Turkey and that the threat against journalists have reached despotic dimensions. It would have eased my conscience.

As a matter of fact, I do certainly share serious concerns over the development in various aspects. The arrests add to the increasing problems regarding the conditions in journalism, and they strengthen the perception that the grip of the authorities tightens over the fourth estate.

The way the Şener/Şık case is being handled caused deep puzzlement, raised more questions than answers and led to furious reactions. The complete lack of transparency in critical trials such as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer has begun to damage the public trust in justice -- for exposure and punishment of those responsible for acts of terror, politically organized crime and disruption of democratic order -- and opinion may turn against those cases.

The government’s attempts to refer everything to the “independence of the judiciary” and unwillingness to push for transparency has not been convincing. Some Western capitals are alarmed, consequently, not without reason.

But, knowledge is pain.

Insiders (of our profession) like me -- and some others -- see a bigger picture when discussing the state of press freedoms in Turkey. It is, in other words, impossible to approach the issue without including the nature of journalism some of our colleagues are involved in, and the role of media owners in the professional misery of the sector.

Ahmet Şık is an old friend of mine. I do not have the slightest doubt about his commitment to good journalism, which was proven by his bold work in the weekly Nokta some years ago. Ahmet did continue to work in daily Radikal, and was fired. He fought legally and won his case, but was not allowed to come back. His case was one of the many unjust treatments in our sector, where good journalists were sacked with no reason.

Many of those who today protest Şık’s arrest are the ones who never reacted then.

In a fresh development, we heard by word of mouth (three days ago) that the management of the Hürriyet daily had banned a columnist (Tufan Türenç) from writing, and reduced the frequency of the articles of four others to only once a week. Three of the columnists are well known for their anti-government views.

Whose decision was this act of censorship? Certainly not the government’s. It could never have happened without the direct “orders” of the proprietor of the Doğan Media Group. Some may argue that “government pressure” is behind it, but it will neither be convincing, nor conceal the profound hypocrisy that has spread among the majority of my colleagues like a disease. If (underline if) their fight is about press freedoms, they should have raised hell and asked the proprietor why he refused to take sides with them. They do not and will not. The insincere game of “struggle” ends there: While shrewd media owners do anything to give priority to their commercial interests and fully ignore editorial independence (as they have done for decades), their employees want us to believe that as soon as “political pressure” ends “press freedoms” (in their narrow definition) will be restored.

This is written in order not to legitimize the arrests of Şener and Şık. It is told to present a reality that has much more to it than meets the eye. The media sector in Turkey lost, long ago, its compass and spirit of solidarity. It is now ruled by deep polarization and mutual mistrust. It was a massive pro-militarism hand-in-hand with “owner loyalty” that destroyed what remained of good journalism in the ‘90s.

It left a dirty legacy of a “journalism” which became instrumental in “behind closed doors” conspiracies, disinformation and manipulation. Journalists -- some of them naively -- became tools of power struggles in a sharply complex milieu; others, disguised as “journalists,” were in the service of (secret parts of) the state, bureaucracy and proprietors.

It made all of us personally vulnerable, professionally fragile and in desperate need of independence. This state leaves us with a press that is losing its grip on a crucial role in Turkey’s delicate process of transformation into a full democracy. We may continue to discuss only the victims of the recent process, but it is time for the media to confront itself with the root causes of the condition that it is in.

09 March 2011

‘Little İstanbul’ in Los Angeles

It was, in a way, a surreal suggestion. “Do you want to see how İstanbul lives in LA?” asked my friend. “Just follow me.”

Under optimistic March sunshine and blue skies, we took a pleasant, smooth car ride all the way into downtown Los Angeles. When we reached Hill and 7th, we felt we were there. “Welcome to the Grand Bazaar of the West Coast,” said my friend, a second-generation Armenian of İstanbul. Sooner than I realized, I was to meet his 84-year-old father and others.

Here they have been, all spread out in jewelry boutiques, sharing various counters, all with people from “Bolso” -- as they call İstanbul. Here are all the old guys from the old town, from the districts of Kumkapı, Kadırga, Samatya and Kurtuluş. Dressed just as they used to, they gather in the grand streets of downtown L.A. to meet each other and to greet visitors. We are invited to an old alley called “Eli,” which means “passage,” where they meet regularly to talk and remember the good old days in İstanbul, its life and its great football clubs. They are the victims of nostalgia. “We are like salt on the earth,” one of them says. The analogy is clear. The Armenians are everywhere on the globe, as if somebody spread them here and there, just like grains of salt.

I am greeted with exaggerated friendliness. The fact that I am a newcomer from İstanbul is enough. There he is, the man whom everybody calls “Uncle Garbis.” He is 84 years old, looking half as young, telling me stories of his days as a tough guy in the Old Town (of İstanbul) and how many times he waved joyfully at Atatürk and even kissed his hand, as he passed by his car in Kumkapı. I am conscious of a conversation with a genuine İstanbulite, in the midst of Los Angeles, miles and hours away.

Here they are, the Anatolian Armenians, “castaways” on the West Coast. “Here we are,” says one of them, “Sentenced to life imprisonment.” Here, in one of the most pleasant climates on the earth, they do not conceal that they feel misplaced. They miss their real hometown. They are with their families, in another city, generous and comfortable, but their minds are elsewhere. Distraction is their fate.

Most of them had to leave a turbulent and hostile Turkey in the early ‘70s. It was a time of deep political divide that left little room for Armenians. They joined their kin, who had been living there since the early 20th century, and found a home in a place with a climate that resembled the Mediterranean.

There are around 800,000 Armenians living in California, mainly in the Los Angeles area. The majority come from Anatolia and İstanbul, with which they still keep contact, probably because the love for the homeland is too strong despite the fact that the memory is haunted by the painful sequence of events.

They remain Anatolians. They expect their broken hearts be met with love and care. The only healing will be through some steps for closure -- a tough task.

When I flew the first direct route of Turkish Airlines (THY) between İstanbul and Los Angeles the other day, I felt puzzled. A part of me felt cold, indifferent; the other part was joyful because the route was reconnecting a broken line of history, offering a new opening.

THY will fly the route four days a week (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday). Its management hopes that the large Armenian diaspora (with 800,000 people) -- and the Iranian one with more or less the equal number -- will be encouraged to visit. It is a positive step, particularly for the aim of “normalizing” Turkish-Armenian relations. It is important that the Armenians of Anatolia are helped to “heal” their broken hearts, as they are encouraged to (re)visit İstanbul.

Most of them will feel attracted to it, since they fly to Yerevan. It is most welcome, since there already are direct flights between İstanbul and Yerevan, but it should be much more reasonable for THY to establish regular flights even along that route. This could be a new, small, but important step along the path of normalization, which can only take place if the people encounter each other spontaneously.

I felt that the Anatolian Armenians welcomed direct flights, and I hope that it can open a direct flight to reconciliation.

07 March 2011

Open letter to Ambassador Ricciardone

Dear Ambassador,Welcome (back) to Turkey, and welcome (back) to its mind-boggling, confusing complexities. Rest assured that most of us in the media often feel as perplexed and lost as you, as the layers of reality unfold before us.

I have a full understanding of the caution you exercised when you intended to share some concerns on press freedoms with my colleagues. As I also understand you need all the help you can get from us, to have an eye on what truly goes on.

As a keen observer of the past three decades of violations of human rights and unending problems with freedom of expression, allow me to walk you through the facts, lies, exaggerations and what lies between in the gray areas.

As I complained in my previous article, the media in Turkey is drawn to a polarization as the militancy stemming from the unprofessional tendency to belong to this or that camp rises to new heights every day. This inclination brings my colleagues closer to a blindness to the facts, distortions, fierce partisanship and conflicting narratives. Divisions are sharp, and there is still not a powerful center in the media for the defense of full-fledged democracy and professional freedom and rights.

Asymmetry in the media makes things more complicated. As I pointed out in my former article, disproportionally large segments of the media (a group controlling 65 percent of the ad revenues) continue to be on a crash course with the government and their news and column pages capitalize upon every opportunity to attack -- beyond just “criticizing” -- the government and the ruling party. The element of professional dishonesty has been dominant, but it has been exposed by other segments of the media.

As this large segment continues to elaborate on the “freedom of the press is in danger” narrative, others are opposing it. If you, for example, visit Hürriyet and Taraf, Zaman or Sözcü, you will hear completely different narratives. The more you do, the easier it will be to understand the true nature of the issue: While an increasingly larger part of the press is involved in pushing democracy agenda, lobbying for an enhancement of rights and freedoms, the other parts struggle to defend a position with the aim of delaying democracy, of blocking the steps for further reform, and covering up “dirty truths” of the past.

As you also said, the press here enjoys freedom. True, were it suppressed, we would not experience, for instance, a fiercely oppositional, loud newspaper, Sözcü, to double its circulation and become as powerfully vocal as they have. Diversity today is a fact no honest observer can deny.

In this milieu, there is great confusion about definitions, terms and figures. Many say that there are around 50 journalists in jail.

Is that true? The reputable Bianet website, an independent, leftist news source and human rights monitor largely sponsored by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) in Sweden, claims that there are only four. All of them Kurds and, of course, four too many.

Fifty-eight or four? The confusion is over the applied criteria. The high number refers to journalists who are jailed for alleged crimes that are not related to their professional activities.

It is a big problem, nevertheless. But the lengthy arrests that might turn into a de-facto punishment is a problem here that involves all citizens. Journalists are a loud bunch, and their voices are heard more. But, frankly, limiting the complaints only to jailed journalists is morally wrong because you are asking for privileged treatment for a specific profession, for allegations that have not much to do with our work.

Another moral dilemma is about the recent arrests in the Odatv case. If the reason for it is strictly related to publications, it must be condemned. But if not? Here, the Turkish press is again sharply divided. It is a well-known fact that the website is one of the symbols of the dark side of Turkish journalism, as it has been under fire for severe anti-Semitism, lies, character assassinations and systematic hate speech. As an American you would look at these things differently, but in a country where hate discourse on all levels is a problem for social stability, I truly hesitate to react in favor of such outlets.

Dear Ambassador, in today’s Turkey the real problem is with the 4,000 to 5,000 cases filed against journalists who try to cover politically sensitive legal cases and uncover the details of undemocratic activities. This should stop; it hinders the work we do.

Furthermore, there are around 30 articles in various laws that restrict the the field of journalism, the Law on the Internet being one of them. The judiciary implementing the laws in an illiberal manner is another grave issue. Some newspapers and reporters are bent to their knees under lawsuits. This is where the real issue is.

On a final note, let me humbly express two points: It is crucial that you talk to all parts of the media, collect their narratives in a pool and judge thereafter. Do keep in mind, too, that uninformed or ill-informed interventions by ambassadors of the US may feed anti-Americanism, as the Eric Edelman case proved. Let us keep a dialogue, to understand our complexities together.

18 February 2011

Journalists as defense lawyers

Turkey’s media -- the most problematic sector in the country -- has become further polarized with the arrest warrants issued by the judge of the spectacular “Sledgehammer” case. The uniqueness of the trial is beyond question, and so is its political nature. Ten or so years ago no one could have imagined that a large chunk of high-ranking officers could even be prosecuted for crimes of this nature, let alone be put under arrest by civilian courts. Its shockwaves shattered, more than anything else, the media.

It should come as no surprise. Until a decade ago, an overwhelming part of the media was operational as an accomplice for what many today see as the “old order.” It was openly instrumentalized by the various segments of the military tutelage and, while deliberately maintaining an uncritical and obedient stand vis-à-vis the military, neglected the element of public interest in its conduct.

Every time human rights abuses of different segments of the citizenry reached new peaks during the 1980s and the 1990s, they were largely censored or (as in the case of prison riots at the end of the 1990s) watered down by official lies and sheer state propaganda.

The remnants of the professionally bankrupt and ideologically polluted media now face a huge litmus test, and a hardening struggle for survival.

The Sledgehammer case exposed most of it. Ever since a tiny, independent paper called Taraf published massive leaks on alleged subversive activities within the army between 2003 and 2004, the dilemma of journalists became apparent. Where do they stand? How should they react to the revelations, which are explosive in content? What should they do?

Whose side we should be on is a question raised by any journalist, but it comes up on rare occasions. One example is the case of the Spanish newspaper El Pais. When the Spanish parliament was stormed by mid-rank officers, the editors of the paper showed no hesitation to stand on the side of democracy. The conditions necessitate that the press take a stand because it does not survive under repression or tyranny.

There is an interesting asymmetry in Turkey now. When the society in general is supportive of legal efforts to expose anti-democratic activity (as the polls show), a disproportionately large part of the so-called mainstream media is pulled in a hysterical mood to “acquit” all those who stand accused in critical trials such as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer.

The more the editors and pundits (mainly from the powerful Doğan outlets) leave their professional roles and turn into the defense lawyers of the suspects -- which they now openly do -- some others in rival media outlets tend to adopt the role of prosecutors. Hence, we are witnessing a sharpening use of language, increased enmity and open ground for revenge.

Is there a middle ground?

The question is that of conscience and honesty. The fact of the matter is that many of our colleagues who are now willing to be identified as defense lawyers for Sledgehammer suspects know that there has been constant anti-democratic activity in the past eight years, led by certain groups of high-ranking officers, which also encompassed sympathizers from various sectors. What united them was the deep contempt, even enmity, of the elected AK Party. The number of journalists who never concealed sympathies for such projects was rather high; many of them were in key positions to “help out.”

But the issue was this: In our private conversations, we knew that they knew what was going on. There was not the slightest doubt over their intentions. Their cruel, visible signs (assassinations, acts of terror, threats, misinformation, etc.) left little room for doubt and much room for fear and uncertainty.

This is the disturbing part. It is not that many of those colleagues shrugged their shoulders when in the 1990s, for example, the local reporters sent wires on summary executions, murders by dirty warriors and “disappearances” of dissidents, this at a time when many of our colleagues were sent to jail for their courage to cover human rights abuses. It is something much more disturbing when a large group of suspects are put on trial for demolishing a democratic order and our colleagues conceal what they have actually “known” and, instead of conveying the people’s expectations of a swift and fair trial for all of them, dishonestly spread the lies that the “judiciary is being politicized.” They waste what little is left of their credibility.

The fact is that Turkey needs answers on who was involved, and to what degree, in coup plotting and junta formations. The answers will depend on the evidence and arguments and court verdicts. Do not believe media figures who act like lawyers.

16 February 2011

How to defend media freedom?

Starting tomorrow, I will be in Paris for a few days to engage in a media debate on two crucial topics: Freedom of expression and self-regulation in journalism. Both events will take place at UNESCO’s headquarters with people from all around the world attending.

The issues are interrelated and will never go away. Freedom of expression is a holy arena for democracies -- more so for emerging ones -- but requires a great deal of common sense and professional responsibility. That is why media accountability is a necessity: The more open and transparent the press, the easier it is to fight all sorts of despotism attempting to curb the media’s freedom.

The case of the Hungarian government versus the media was made fully visible in a growing debate that made it to the European Parliament. The new media law in Hungary paves the way for governmental control over all media activity. The content of news and commentary is under the risk of being examined by the very politicians who are the subject of the news and commentary. No matter how much the new Hungarian law contradicts the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Viktor Orban’s government seems to be indifferent.

If the media does not defend its traditional values and its role as an independent Fourth Estate, then nobody will. The examples of France and Italy show that it may even be tough for the media in established democracies to resist attempts from above to intervene in editorial content and push for censorship.

The Turkish example is also under constant supervision. It should be. The case of Turkey is problematic and complicated.

The problem arises with the applied criteria, which can be misleading.

All the international organizations monitor measures by the state apparatus, government and political power circles against the media and prepare the judgments therein. But in (South) Eastern Europe and Russia there is a phenomenon that is almost always out of the monitors’ radar: In the privately owned media landscape, the role of greedy, militant, corrupt proprietors in terms of applying censorship and causing self-censorship is proven with many examples.

“If the media owners were not involved in the thievery that went on for years here, our colleagues in those places would feel much bolder to report on the corruption and to inform the public properly. They became by the pressure of the corrupt owners part of the machinery of lying,” complained a Greek colleague of mine.

The debate on media freedom here goes in several directions. First, there are those colleagues (pundits, not reporters) affiliated with the Doğan Media Group who “confess” that they apply self-censorship because of the “fear of the government.”

They are deceiving themselves. It has been, in all cases, not the government but the owner who dismissed the columnists. They should blame their bosses because some of those dismissed columnists continue to write -- without fear -- in other anti-government outlets, such as the Sözcü daily, which is constantly growing in circulation, and Cumhuriyet.

So, the “I fear the government” discourse is a lie, a manipulation.

In a nutshell, there are two main problems that keep Turkey’s media freedom on shaky ground. The first one has to do with the legislation and the second has to with the ownership concentration in the sector. They are inseparable.

By any measure, the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s suing Ahmet Altan, a bold, award-winning columnist who has helped break many taboos and revealed many stories from behind the armor of the military, is unacceptable. It follows the pattern that each time a politician or a bureaucrat feels insulted, he or she goes to court. This should stop. Simply because it will not stop people from continuing to write critically about those in power, as Turkish experience has shown for decades.

The government has to amend articles in the Penal Code, the Press Law and the Anti-Terror Law that have caused almost 5,000 criminal investigations and lawsuits, mainly against reporters. These articles seriously paralyze the professional actions informing the public. Hate speech must be banned.

Further on, the government should remove the part about “insulting Atatürk’s memory” from the Internet Law, and replace the term “obscenity” with “pornography.” If it does these simple things, 90 percent of the problems will vanish.

Finally, in order to enhance freedom of the media, the government should pay attention to recommendations by the Council of Europe and put an end to ownership concentration, which is still in place. Currently a single media group controls 65 percent of all advertisement revenues, with 45 percent in print. Limitations are crucial for a pluralist, competitive market. To complete the job, the government should ban media owners from public tenders, restrict cross-ownership and allow more than a 50 percent share of foreign capital in the audiovisual media.

24 January 2011

What happened in the 1st Army in late 2002?

Truth has a nasty habit of coming out in the open, sooner or later. When the Taraf daily a year ago published stories on the coup plans prepared between 2002-2004 within the 1st Army Headquarters in İstanbul under the codename “Sledgehammer,” the country’s sickeningly militarist media was quick to launch a campaign to discredit the story.

Later on, the biased relatives of a commander, who now stands accused, joined the efforts to set a smokescreen by acting as amateur lawyers, declaring the evidence invalid and going as far as calling the “coup plans” a sheer lie.

The sad part was that many circles that could have remained patient and waited for more evidence to be presented to the court joined the chorus in pre-empting the verdict.

But the new findings come as a strong slap in the face. On late Tuesday, the court distributed new evidence to the lawyers of the accused 196 officers, and through them to the press. The DVDs contain material based on the search conducted at Gölcük Naval Command on Dec. 6 of last year. In that search the police found nine sacks of hidden documents, which later were investigated in the presence of military staff who served as “observers.”

The evidence, based on 43 folders, and eagerly anticipated by non-militarist press, is simply shocking. It contradicts the accounts of the accused and their defenders that there was no coup plotting. On the contrary, several crucial documents tell us that the “Sledgehammer” plan to topple the newly elected government and Parliament were being implemented already by the end of 2002. In this context, two documents are crucial.

The first, dated Dec. 17, 2002, bears the signature of Çetin Doğan, the then-commander of the 1st Army, and asks the military staff to observe and report “all reactionary activity” in the public domain to headquarters. It also asks for lists of “categorized military staff” to be prepared. This demand was circulated a week later among all the divisions within the 1st Army, and the text of the speech by Doğan to his top staff dated December 20, 2002, is also among the new evidence.

The material is extensive. It includes “death lists” that name both Hrant Dink and Etyen Mahcupyan as well as 17 other “dissidents.” It details plans to arrest certain navy and air forces commanders that must be detained during “action.”

It reveals plans intended to serve as provocations and orders to “act very discreetly.” It indicates a firm position on “exerting pressure on the chief of General Staff [Hilmi Özkök]” to increase flights over the Aegean -- and much more.

Let us not drown in the details. The most important findings are the hard disks. Until now, those arguing against the primary evidence questioned the authenticity of the CDs and DVDs. Hard disks were nowhere to be found.

Now, the investigation that has led to the discovery of hard disks, and if they prove to be the ones that “disappeared”, they will disperse all doubts for good.

The material also clarifies the timeframe and “roadmap” for the Sledgehammer plot. They also show that a flank of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had decided on taking action as soon as the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power.

That flank was hugely disappointed that the Feb. 28, 1997 action plan against what it saw as an Islamist threat did not produce the desired results. So, even if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was not elected in the November 2002 polls, it did not seem to matter. A military intervention seemed all the more inevitable.

If the government did not “obey,” it would have to be weakened step by step, and go, by force.

But things were not that easy. Other powerful flanks of the TSK were against any undemocratic action. Those officers were led by Özkök, who at an early stage was informed of subversive activity within the 1st Army. It was Özkök who was a steady stumbling block before Sledgehammer plans.

People wonder how nine sacks of such material remained hidden after all these years. It can be explained only by traditional arrogance of the commanders and blind belief that “the day of revenge will come.”

No wonder ex US Aambassador James Jeffrey voices fresh fear that a coup may still be a possibility as late as last year, as revealed in a cable dated February 23 2010, made public last week by WikiLeaks.

Who is behind the findings in Gölcük? Who helped the prosecutors trace the hidden material there?

Is it not clear? As much as constant coup plotting, the army was a beehive, a hub of power struggles and a center of intrigue until very recently. It was those officers who were on the verge of being dismissed by their “coup loving,” trigger-happy generals but were then protected vigorously by Özkök and his staff who stood firm in support for democracy.

In the diaries of journalist Mustafa Balbay, the head of the civilian intelligence National Intelligence Organization (MİT) is quoted in early 2003 as warning him during a private lunch, “Watch out for the 1st Army, they are preparing a coup there.”

The head of MİT has not denied those remarks to this day.

So, it will be the new evidence, as well as the testimonies of high-level officials, that define the course and final outcome of the Sledgehammer trials, not amateurish books by relatives acting as shadow lawyers or prosecutors; or manipulative articles by militarist pundits.

21 January 2011