Turkish media reach rock bottom with Cumhuriyet case

Rock bottom for the Turkish press? Possibly.

What’s happened with the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet is the inevitable result of a slow but steady process of demolition. The destruction of independent and pluralist journalism in Turkey because the 94-year-old newspaper was one of the last major news outlets critical of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

What happened with Turkey’s oldest newspaper was either folly or a shrewd coup. Cumhuriyet was founded with encouragement from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of the secular Turkish Republic.

On the surface, Cumhuriyet faced a thorny legal battle over its executive board. The board is unique in Turkish media outlets because it is structured as a foundation, which is seen as a guarantee of independence in a corrupt sector.

Former members of the Cumhuriyet board filed lawsuits after 2013, claiming that the election of other members was “null and void.” Now, the High Court of Appeals of Turkey has ruled in favour of plaintiffs Alev Coskun, Sevket Tokus, Mustafa Pamukoglu and Mustafa Balbay.

Media insiders had dreaded this outcome because a fierce ideological battle had crippled the newspaper. At a time of systemic crisis in Turkey, when media independence and freedom matters most, Cumhuriyet was in turmoil.

The court ruling had the effect of an earthquake. The victorious plaintiffs declared that Ataturk had come back to the newspaper and a new phase begun. Twenty-three senior staff members handed in their resignations or were sacked. Among them were many authoritative columnists and leading journalists, including Cigdem Toker, arguably the top investigative business reporter in the country.

The bitterness ran so deep that the new editorial management refused to print some farewell columns. The irony was that many of those who had to leave had been in prison for nearly two years. They had been convicted in a Kafkaesque trial on charges of aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation, the Gulen movement. The charge was absurd because many of the accused, as liberal leftists, were sworn critics of that movement.

The battle was about ideological differences. For those who won the legal case, it was about reviving Kemalism, which they claimed had been ignored over the years. For the defeated, it was about the end of a certain kind of journalism. It was the end of efforts to make the newspaper the voice of Turkish pluralism by reporting on human rights abuses and oppression.

“Whoever was subject to injustice, we reported on the basis of universal values of journalism, regardless of whichever affiliation that person or whether that person is a friend or not,” said Murat Sabuncu, Cumhuriyet’s former editor-in-chief. He added that after the 2016 failed coup, Cumhuriyet saw it as its duty to provide a voice to a country that had been all but silenced.

There is little doubt that Turkey’s left-liberal and Kurdish segments saw the executive board takeover as a coup.

Ahmet Insel, a prominent academic and Cumhuriyet columnist who handed in his resignation, told Euronews channel: “There is a large constituency in Turkey, other than the AKP [the ruling Justice and Development Party] that is also nationalist, rigid, bigoted and cannot tolerate views different from its own. One of the reasons the AKP remains in power… is that the constituencies that appear to be against it, actually share the same authoritarian stance.”

There is no doubt that Cumhuriyet’s new management, claiming to an ultra-Kemalism, will invest in rebuilding the opinion pages. The investment will be in the hope that like-minded readership will buy the newspaper for the views rather than just the news.

The heart of the matter, however, is whether print journalism has a future in Turkey. The rift in Cumhuriyet has enormous symbolic value for journalism — a profession on life support — even as those high-calibre journalists who had to leave face the prospect of not having an outlet for which to work.

Even so, the new management’s belief that Cumhuriyet can grow from approximately 30,000 copies to have a huge effect is an illusion. In a Turkey in crisis, the most damaged sector is the import-dependent newspaper industry. Small opposition papers are suffering terribly and have had to raise cover prices.

Therefore, the Cumhuriyet case illustrates the myopic view taken by many colleagues in Turkey. They are denying journalism’s new global reality.

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