Turkey – That's the Press, Baby!
25 March 2016
By Amir Taheri
''That's the press, baby, and there is nothing you can do about it! Nothing!''
This is how Humphrey Bogart, playing Ed Hutcheson, a newspaper editor, puts
down the diabolical gang leader who is running the biggest corruption racket
in the city. The final issue of a paper that the head of the syndicate has
bought in order to silence forever is going to the press with a full story
exposing his racket that includes murder.
The 1952 film ''Deadline – U.S.A'', perhaps Hollywood's best on the role of the
press, is woven around a simple theme: as long as even a single newspaper has
the courage to take on the big and the powerful, the whole society can feel
There was, however, one unstated caveat: the newspaper should not have a
hidden agenda that links it to an alternative bloc of illicit interests. In
other words, to fight the impure you need to be pure yourself.
I was reminded of the old film the other day when the Turkish government
decided to seize control of the Istanbul daily ''Zaman '' (Time) with the
shopworn excuse that the paper was ''undermining national security.''
Within 24 hours a newspaper that had become the harshest critic of President
Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent times was transformed into his most insipid
sycophant. I was also reminded of the 1980s when as a member of the Executive
Board of the International Press Institute (IPI) I spent a great deal of time
in Turkey attending trials of journalists imprisoned by the military regime of
General Kenan Evren.
Needless to say the brutal takeover of ''Zaman '' must have upset every
journalist and defenders of press freedom across the globe. But, and sadly in
this case there is a but, what if the owners and, to some extent, the staff of
''Zaman '' were also involved in its assassination, albeit unwittingly?
In its campaign against the military regime in the 1980s, the Turkish press,
or at least the segment of it that was prepared to fight, was asking for
nothing but the right to do a proper job of reporting and commenting on what
was going on in the country. The journalists who were sent to prison didn't
have personal axes to grind.
In some cases, they faced charges that were plain scandalous. For example,
Nadir Nadi, the publisher of the daily ''Cumhuriyet'' (Republic) was charged
with ''sedition'' because the daily had used the word ''Kurd'' in one of its
editorials. In other cases, journalists were arrested for expressing
legitimate political views within the framework of the Constitution. For
example, Nazli Ilicak of the daily ''Tercuman'' (Interpretation), founded in
1986, was tried for criticizing the military's use of secularism as an excuse
In every case, though they did have distinct positions on key issues, the
newspapers harassed by the authorities were not ''submarines'' for any political
party or interest group. A ''submarine'' is a publication that pretends to be
non-partisan but is, in fact, a propaganda tool for parties or political
factions that, at times, could even use it in black-arts' style operations.
Under the Turkish Constitution, it is, of course, quite legitimate for
political parties or movements to have their own publications. ''Zaman'', for
example, was launched by Islamist groups at a time that the ruling
establishment, backed by the military, denied them space for self-expression
Islamist leaders such as Necmettin Erbakan, who became Prime Minister for a
brief spell, and Erdogan , who was swept into the mayoralty of Istanbul, the
nation's most populous city, owed part of their success to support from
''Zaman'' and kindred pro-Islamist publications.
Despite some feisty reporting and fiery editorials, ''Zaman'' hardly shook off
its identity as the mouthpiece of the Islamist movement in Turkey. In some
cases, it waged indirect war against secularist newspapers such as
''Cumhuriyet'' and ''Hurriyet'' (Freedom). Its narrative about the possibility of
re-activating Turkey's ''Islamic personality'' within its secularist political
framework achieved its first electoral victory when the Justice and
Development Party (AKP), led by Erdogan, won the general election in 2002 and
formed the first Islamist administration since the one led by Adnan Menderes
Erdogan and AKP who went on to win three more general elections owed a great
deal to the ''Hizmet'' (Service) movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a self-styled
Islamic scholar-cum-clan chief who now lives in exile in Pennsylvania, the
United States. ''Zaman'' was one of several publications that people linked to ''Hizmet'',
created to promote their vision of a re-Islamicized Turkey.
For years, ''Zaman'' either ignored or obliquely justified Erdogan's slow but
steady drift towards autocratic rule. In an insidious manner, the paper added
an Islamic sauce to every dish, using against supporters of a secular system
some of the same dirty tricks that secularists had used against Islamists in
the 1980s. When journalists were sent to prison because they had criticized
the AKP regime's Islamist drift, the paper looked the other way.
Then came what was bound to happen: Gulen fell out with Erdogan, allegedly
over disputes among their respective backers in the business community.
The paper transformed itself from a pro-government organ to one critical of
every move that Erdogan made. Using evidence procured, not to say stolen, from
the government by Hizmet's network, the paper exposed cases of corruption and
double-dealing designed to sap Erdogan's moral authority. It was obvious that,
bitten hard, the AKP would bite back. And it did, by, in effect, killing ''Zaman.''
What has happened to ''Zaman'' is in no way justifiable. Nor could one endorse
the purge of Hizmet supporters taking place at all levels of the Turkish state
apparatus. However, what we are witnessing is a power struggle within the same
constituency and, for a good part, fought over who gets a bigger share of the
''Zaman'' played a major role in promoting the idea that religion would unite
Turkey at a time it needed national unity to meet the challenge of
modernization in a dangerous world. However, the paper's experience shows
that, rather than uniting the Turks, religion has divided them as never
before. This, of course, isn't the fault of religion as such. The
responsibility goes to those who transform religion into an ideology in
pursuit of political power. In that context, the end always justifies the
means, including dirty tricks by newspapers and revenge take-over of them by
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.