Category Archives: Press freedom

Turkey’s post-coup purge brings fear of media witch-hunt

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Turkey’s government has launched a purge of all institutions since the failed 15 July coup, including the media. But how do we know if it is pursuing genuine plotters or  witch-hunting government critics?

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Leman director Zafer Aknar with the offending issue of the paper Photo; Tony Cross

Istanbul 25 July 2016

The 15 July coup attempt came as a shock to everybody – including foreign journalists in Istanbul.

Fariba Nawa is an Afghan, who’s lived in the US for some time. She promised her family she wouldn’t be going back to Afghanistan or any other war zone, so they went to Istanbul, only to find themselves in the middle of a coup.

Kiran Nazish is of Pakistani origin and has also lived in the US. Having reported from a few hairy places, she went to Istanbul to write in peace on the banks of the Bosphorus. Thar didn’t work out.

Forty-two journalists and 31 academics had a surprise of a different sort this morning when they found themselves on a prosecutors’ list of people to be detained in connection with the coup attempt.

The best-known appears to be Nazlı Ilıca, a 72-year-old reporter and former MP who lost her job in 2014.

I have no idea if she has anything to do with US-based Fehtullah Gülen, who the government says was behind the power grab, but the evidence against her, so far as internet trolls are concerned, seems to be that she reported corruption allegations against members of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Those accusations arose during the earlier stages of the AKP’s feud with the Gülenists, now referred to by the AKP as the “2013 coup”, and led to a purge of prosecutors and police.

It also led to a crackdown on the media with papers having offending issues seized and some being taken over by the government, notably the Gülen-linked Zaman, whose English-language editor Abdülhamit Bilici was full of praise for Erdogan and the AKP when I interviewed him during the 2007 general election. How times change!

Media under attack since 2007

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Journalists’ union president Ugur Guc Photo: Tony Cross

In his office in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, journalists’ union president Ugur Güc is getting ready to defend any journalist who come to his organisation for help.

“Since 2007 many journalists have been arrested,” he says, although the union has lately had its hands full defending Kurdish journalists in the south-east, the scene of conflict between the military and Kurdish armed groups.

So the government’s record does not inspire confidence that the purge will be restricted to people truly implicated in the failed putsch.

“We will defend anybody who is a media worker,” he says. “We have many members who previously worked for Zaman newspaper and other newspapers and now are unemployed. For sure we will defend them!

“What they were doing was journalism. We are not interested in their connections.”

But he admits it won’t be easy to defend anyone who really supported the coup.

The problem is that the Gülen organisation really is a conspiracy, whose members keep their membership secret and aim to achieve positions of influence in the state and civil society.

The AKP knows this because it used its network to achieve power and fight the secularists, going along with prosecutions of alleged coup plots that are now being denounced as Gülenist set-ups.

Fear of a witch-hunt

The young man we meet in a café next to one of Istanbul’s many noisy major roads prefers not to give his name.

He is one of “six or seven” journalists who have resigned from Nokta magazine for fear of being caught up in a witch-hunt.

Nokta, which opposed the coup, has been fingered as a Gülenist publication and its chief editor, Cevheri Güven, is on the list of people to be picked up.

“Bringing journalists into line by forming such lists, not letting them sayl things we do not want is not a solution,” he says. “Because in a democratic regime everybody has the right of freedom of expression.

“We do not know what these lists are. They are taking some people, arresting them, then releasing some of them after a few days, and continuing to imprison some others. In my opinion this is not correct.”

Güven and a colleague were detained for two months last year because of a cover, showing Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffins of soldiers killed in the south-east.

Nokta has had to go 100 per cent digital because printing houses refuse to touch it.

Although Güven admitted sympathy for some of Gülen’s ideas, the journalist says he did not let it affect editorial policy and that the magazine took a different line to the Gülenists on questions such as Kurdish rights and democracy..

“I have not seen any connection to them. As far as editorial policy is concerned, our chief editor and coordinator said, we will try to make BBC-style journalism. I don’t think that a Gülen newspaper will try to do BBC-style journalism.”

Police seize satirical paper’s post-coup print run

“So you’re sort of Turkey’s Charlie Hebdo,” I say to Leman’s director Zafer Aknar as we sit down in the magazine’s cluttered office in central Istanbul.

And, indeed, there are photos of a visit by cartoonists and writers from the French satirical paper on the wall.

After the coup attempt Leman published a front page cartoon showing soldiers confronting anti-coup demonstrators, both groups pushed forward by huge hands, depicting the conflict as a “struggle for power between two groups”, as Aknar puts it.

“We prepared the magazine and sent it to printers,” he recalls. “Then we shared the front page on Facebook and Twitter as we have been doing every week. After this post, so-called journalists from the pro-government media launched a campaign against us and then Ak-trolls joined in. They shared the location of our office on internet and called people who were already on the street to go to the office.”

A mob gathered outside the office, although they missed the staff, who had already gone home.

When the police turned up they told the protesters to go home because they had everything in hand.

Which they did, in a way. In a scene that could have been satire itself, they went to the printers and seized the print run, even though they had not warrant to do so, then, when the warrant arrived, went into town to seize papers that had already been distributed.

That didn’t satisfy the trolls, who posted “thousands of messages” threatening the paper, “Didn’t you learn your lesson from Charlie Hebdo?” “Probably Isis was right,” “If you haven’t learnt your lesson, we will teach you,” “Sons of bitches, we will come, raid and burn,” ”‘Are you still alive?” were some examples.

Although none of Leman’s staff are on the present wanted list, Aknar, who is no stranger to the authorities’ attentions, drily comments “It’s not our turn … yet.”

To read my account of the media after the coup for RFI click here

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Charlie and me – Islamophobia, racism, freedom of expression and equality in France

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It’s difficult to write frankly about Charlie Hebdo – it was difficult to do so in the aftermath of the massacre and it’s only a bit easier now. In France there was shock, of course, a kind of solidarity and, let’s be honest, a lot of self-righteousness. But the French don’t have the monopoly on self-righteousness, as the debate on Charlie abroad has shown. I think the experience has much to say about France – and the world – today.

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Tributes to police officer Ahmed Merabet, killed protecting the Charlie Hebdo staff Photo: Azurfrog/public domain

Do I have to say I was horrified by the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the murders in a kosher supermarket that followed? Maybe I do. It’s easy these days to find oneself accused of holding opinions one doesn’t hold and entertaining sympathies one has never entertained, of advocating when trying to analyse (for the record this piece doesn’t aspire to neutrality).

Last January Charlie Hebdo suddenly found millions of passionate defenders – many of whom had clearly never read it or, so far as the more famous among them were concerned, only done so in search of grounds for legal action. Of course, they had the right to be angry at the violence and to defend their perception of freedom of expression. But it was exasperating to be lectured on the nature of a paper one had once read regularly in formulations culled from press coverage rather than formulated from personal experience.

Then the debate took a different turn, in the English-speaking world at least, and I got exasperated with critics who had also clearly never read Charlie. No, anglophone friends, the paper is not entirely devoted to Islamophobic and racist bile. While there’s no defence for some of its cartoons – Riss’s latest on Aylan above all – others were satirising the attitudes many of you believed they were propagating. Like lots of things in life, it can be good and it can be crap.

Here’s my confession of a Charlie reader who gave up.

When I came to France 22 years ago I soon discovered Charlie Hebdo. And I loved it.

The schoolboy humour naturally struck a chord, me being a Brit. The politics was anarcho-leftist-Jacobin, which mostly suited me. And it is true that its contributors mocked everyone, although not equally, as some of the never-read-its claim. Not very much humour on the Holocaust, happily. And lots of scurrilous attacks on the Front National and its then leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, also happily.

But, after a while, it seemed to change.

There were more and more sneers at Islam. I didn’t analyse how many cartoons and articles were devoted to each religion or set of political beliefs – I just stopped reading it – but Islam seemed to me to be becoming an obsession and I found it a distasteful one.

After the Charlie attacks a TV journalist became a French YouTube hit by showing that Charlie Hebdo’s covers over a given period of time featured few cartoons attacking Islam. This quite literally superficial analysis has no pertinence whatever.

Firstly, there was plenty on Islam inside.

Secondly, as former Charlie Hebdo contributor Olivier Cyran pointed out in 2013, attacking a minority religion, associated with an immigrant-origin population that is disproportionately underprivileged,  is not the same as attacking the Catholic church, “which had – and still has – newspapers, MPs, lobbies, salons and enormous property holdings”.

Catholics, one might add, never have their very right to live in Europe challenged, nor is their religion declared foreign to European culture, despite its provenance.

I can’t put a date on when I gave up reading Charlie. Cyran says it took a radical turn for the worse after 9/11. And he tends to blame Philippe Val, an ardent supporter of Israel who was later appointed director of Radio by Nicolas Sarkozy (not so iconoclastic as all that, eh?), and Caroline Fourrest, a hypersecularist who is rarely absent from TV, radio and the written press these days, thanks to her support for gay marriage, her opposition to hijab and her penchant for sniffing out Salafist conspiracies.

On RFI, January 2015: How will the Charlie Hebdo attacks change France?

On RFI, January 2016: One year later, how have the Charlie Hebdo attacks changes France?

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An idealised version of a sans-culotte during the French revolution, Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)

But this hypersecularism is not unique to Charlie. It is very widespread in France – in its arrogant rejection of religion and the religious it was a sort of New Atheism avant la lettre.

It turns out that secularism is one of those container words that you can fill up with any number of meanings, like Liberté, égalité, fraternité or democracy, for that matter.

And, when a term becomes a sort of dogma, no longer examined critically, it lays itself open for exploitation by all sorts of cynical demagogues and authoritarians manqués. We know that from the history of religion, don’t we?

You can see secularism as a truce between non-believers and believers – you keep religion out of my state and I’ll keep my state out of your religion – or you can see it as a more aggressive measure to keep religion completely out of the public eye. That view tends to segue into an apparent desire to wipe religion off the face of the earth. In which case it’s not really secularism, is it? It’s state-sponsored atheism, which hasn’t worked very well.

France’s 1905 law on religion is in fact the first of these alternatives – a more aggressive anti-clerical faction lost the argument – but many French people interpret it as the second, with a tinge of the third, increasingly so these days.

When I first went to Turkey, to cover the 2007 parliamentary elections, some supporters of the secular parties used the French term laïcité to distinguish what Mustapha Kemal Atatürk had put into practice in Turkey from mere secularism.

Like the French version, Turkey’s secularism was born from a violent rupture with the past.

It was an attempt to break the hold of religion on the minds of the masses and end habits regarded as backward according to the Young Turks’ identification of modernity with Europe.

You can understand this zeal in the context of the French revolution. The revolutionaries needed to break the power of a Catholic church that was a powerful part of the ancien regime and, if we bear in mind today’s revelations of clerical child abuse in countries where the church went unchallenged, there must have been an awful lot of residual bitterness over priestly abuses of power, which may explain the violence of some anti-clerical exactions.

Post-Ottoman Turkey, too, had to replace a regime of which religion was an integral part  and create a state capable of standing up to the Islamic clergy, although, if we look at Turkey’s current political and social condition, we would have to conclude that it has been a mitigated success.  The largest secular party, the CHP,  seems to have recognisew this and is revising its hardline position.

But where is the relevance for France today?

When right-wing Catholics and assorted bigots turned out en masse to oppose the Socialist government’s same-sex marriage law – singularly failing to mobilise Muslims, by the way, despite some efforts to do so – there were few appeals to secularism. Indeed, right-wing politicians who have seen fit to call for pork-only menus to be served in school canteens were happy to play fast and loose with the god-botherers.

Because, excuse me for stating the obvious, it’s all about Islam. Nobody thought to ban “ostentatious signs of religion in schools, until a couple of Muslim girls turned up in hijab. (In that debate, which is now being recycled as a debate on cover in universities and workplaces, there is a strange confusion between those in authority and those over whom authority is exercised. Of course teachers should not proselytise, they represent the state, but why shouldn’t their pupils manifest religious convictions? Is it even realistic to expect them not to? In this respect the French are as prudish about religion as the British are about politics.)

On RFI i 2010 France’s burka bill, background to a bitter debate

That explains why many right-wing ideologues can one minute invoke Europe’s Christian or Judeo-Christian roots and the next pose as ferocious defenders of secularism, just as many of the political successors of the late 19th-century and early 20th-centur anti-Semites are now ardent defenders of Israel.

This form of secularism has become an assertion of the superiority of the Occident over the world it once colonised, tinged with class hatred, given that many of its exponents will happily mix with well-off, “integrated” persons of foreign origin, but like to whip up fear of a lawless mass in the banlieue.

Of course, Muslims are equal in France. Secularism applies to everybody just as “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread”, to quote Anatole France.

As Emmanuel Todd says in Qui est Charlie? – the book that earned him the singular privilege of a reply from the prime minister in the august pages of Le Monde – they face a pressure to conform from people of Catholic culture, who tell them “I have the right to blaspheme against my former religion, so you have to the duty to blaspheme against yours.”

The feeling of cultural superiority takes a distinctive form in France and has infected the left in a way it has not, in my experience, infected the British left.

To go back the two decades to my arrival in France I was struck by how in our globalised world – less globalised then, but still – national attributes continued to exist.

In my new home appreciating good food and drink was not considered elitist snobbery, it was not generally considered necessary to make room for other people when walking in the street, the arts were considered important enough to merit a slot on TV news bulletins, the customer was very definitely not always right, intellectuals felt under no obligation to pretend they were not intellectuals … and every French person was a bit of a patriot.

No matter how left-wing and in principle internationalist they were, they treasured in their hearts a certain conviction that French culture was superior to all others.

Of course, we all assume to some degree or other that what we’re used to is the natural order of things and I know that my new friends often found me quaintly British.

But I think France is the only country where former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chévènement could found his own little party to propagate a bizarre leftish form of nationalism, where the hard-left candidate in the last presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could this year wax indignant about the Corsican regional council taking an oath “in a language I don’t understand” and where Prime Minister Manuel Valls … well I was talking about the left, so let’s leave Manuel Valls out of it.

It’s partly the fault of the French Communist Party, which at the time when it was France’s biggest party in terms of membership took the popular front accommodation with nationalism very seriously, played a heroic role in the resistance to German occupation, which inevitably led to a certain nationalist, even xenophobic, contagion, and after the war just couldn’t get out of the opportunist habit.

And, of course, there’s the revolution, without which the modern world would not exist.

The legacy of the revolution legitimises popular revolt. The slogans of the revolution represent a promise that is sufficiently vague to serve as justification for the established order and rallying cry for those who wish to overthrow it. The revolution has served as example, case study and inspiration for every generation of revolutionaries since.

And its centralist, nation-building aspects sometimes morph into the secular ultimatums, sneering and prejudice that find expression in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, which, despite its affection for the slogan “No god, no masters”, seems to have found it easier to come to an accommodation with the latter than with the former.

Because, despite the naughty words, the routine impertinence, the tits, bums and dicks, Charlie Hebdo is a bit of a court jester these days.

Viewed from the banlieue, as academic and journalist Andrew Hussey points out, Charlie is part of the establishment.

“What is seen in the centre of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society,” he wrote in the New York Times after the attacks.

Indeed, one of the main reasons that Islam is resurgent is that the left has lost the leadership of the anti-imperialist and antiracist struggles. Secular nationalist and left-wing anti-colonial movements degenerated into corrupt dictatorships or neo-liberal democratic plutocracies. Mass socialist parties voided themselves of their class content.

The spectre haunting the world today is the spectre of fundamentalist jihad, violent, divisive, frightening, supported by a tiny minority of Muslims but filling a demand created by the arrogance of the West and the inadequacy of the left.

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War with PKK, assaults on media freedom and clampdown on dissent to continue after Erdogan’s win in Turkey’s election

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Turkey’s election this month may have been pushed out of the spotlight by the attacks in Paris and Bamako but the surprise result will have a long-term effect, not just on the country itself as an increasingly authoritarian president gathers more power into his hands by legal and illegal means but also internationally, since Isis is on its doorstep and active on its soil. You can’t ignore Turkey and you can’t ignore the Kurds, including the PKK – officially terrorists to Washington and Brussels – and its sister organisation the KYD – among the few effective allies in the fight against the armed Islamists.

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A woman votes in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir on 1 November 2015

Voxpops on polling day indicate a landslide for the HDP in Diyarbakir.

“And why? Because of the democracy of the HDP,” explains the first person we ask, a student called Suna, who is translating for international observers. “Because I find them serious about all of the problems of Turkey … Now I’m not happy to be in this country because of this government and I want them to go.”

‘’HDP, HDP, HDP, PKK, HDP, PKK!” chants Mehmetcik, a pensioner, at another polling station, going on to chide us for the duplicity of the great powers, who betrayed their promise of an independent Kurdistan after the breakup of the Ottoman empire.

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A statue of a weary traveller heading for Diyarbakir and a showcase of musical instruments at the city’s arts school, a polling station for the day Photo: Tony Cross

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Taner, an electrical engineer who has come back to vote from Iraqi Kurdistan, where he’s working, used to support the AKP. “Then we saw that they had a very exclusive way of governing. So we saw that the situation was very bad and we understood that this way of governing is very bad.”

True, a few people refuse to say how they are voting and some are reluctant to express their opinions because of police officers hovering near the entrance to polling station.

For my report on polling day in Diyarbakir for RFI click here 

The result is astonishing.

The AKP wins an absolute majority and, while the secular nationalist CHP’s vote has held up, the HDP’s has fallen, as has the right-wing national MHP. The AKP has gained a seat in Diyarbakir.

Police and special forces are everywhere as we make our way to the HDP’s Diyarbakir offices.

A roadblock looms ahead of us in the dark, forcing us to change our route. As we drive down a wide streets, a group of young men is lined up against a wall, special forces’ guns trained on them. Another special force members has his gun in the face of a driver, who is half in, half out of his car.

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Youths light a fire on the road outside the HDP headquarters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Groups of youths are hanging around the street, leading to HDP HQ. We park at a distance and, as we approach, they collect branches and rubbish and set it alight.

An excitable kid of no more than 16 berates journalists in Kurdish. He looks at my recording equipment and, although he seems unclear as to its function, says that I shouldn’t show it to the police.

Inside the offices no one wants to be interviewed. Young activists seem to be in shock at the result.

From a balcony we watch the youths outside drag rubbish and tyres onto the road and set them alight, creating a roadblock that doesn’t stop the traffic – the cars just drive around it – but does attract the police, which seems to be the purpose of the exercise.

A few rounds of gunfire echo through the surrounding tower blocks.

The police fire teargas, which floats into the building before people shut the windows, and a police water cannon arrives.

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A police water cannon retreats after being attacked by youths in Diyarbakir Photo: Diyarbakir

The kids, very young but apparently well-practiced in tackling these lumbering monsters intifada-style, scatter and then regroup behind it, coming up close where the water can’t reach, and stoning it.

They do this persistently and with some effect. Eventually it leaves, to cheers from the HDP office, then a special forces armoured car turns up and the police water cannon returns. Someone fires several rounds into the air from a dark corner just off the road.

As the kids disperse, some of them surround a photographer and start shouting at him. They believe he has photographed them with their faces uncovered – most of the time they’ve had scarves and hoodies hiding their identities – and are extremely unhappy about the prospect of them being published or falling into the hands of the police. An HDP activist goes out and places himself between them and the photographer, calming the kids down and bringing him into the building.

As we leave an HDP MP, Ziya Pir, does comment on the result. The rise in violence pushed some voters into the arms of the AKP, he believes, and the HDP leadership lulled their supporters into a sense of false security by predicting a rise in the vote.

The rest of the town is calm, if gloomy. Customers in restaurants watch PM Davutoglu deliver a triumphant victory speech at AKP headquarters in Ankara.

For my report on Diyarbakir after the result became clear click here 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gamble has paid off. His AKP doesn’t even have to find a coalition partner, although it doesn’t have a sufficiently large number of seats to change the constitution, as Erdogan would like, in order to transfer power from the prime minister to the president and, incidentally, let a number of AKP MPs and hangers-one off the hook in several corruption investigations.

The violence that has flared up with the end of peace talks with the PKK and attacks by Isis seems to have driven a substantial number of voters into the arms of the AKP, attracted by Erdogan’s tough-guy image and his increasingly nationalist and Islamist rhetoric. That would account for the MHP’s decline, the AKP has stolen its USP, while adding a dose of assertive Islamic identity. Maybe some HDP voters were demoralised or frightened by the revival of violence, although nobody indicated that was the case at the polling stations or on the street.

Erdogan and his acolytes waste no time in making the most of their triumph. The day after the vote police raid the premises of the weekly magazine Nokta, seizing all copies of the latest issue as it rolls off the presses.

The cover, which read “Monday, November 2: The Beginning of Turkey’s Civil War”, was deemed an incitement to crime.

A previous issue of Nokta was seized for insulting the president and making propaganda for terrorists because it published a montage of Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffin of a soldier killed fighting the PKK.

In the three months running up to the elections, according to media freedom campaigners, 21 journalists, three media houses and one printworks have been attacked by mobs, some of them including AKP activists, 61 people – 37 of them journalists – have been charged with insulting a public figure, 19 have been charged with insulting the president and 168 articles, 101 websites and 40 social media postings have been censored.

There can be little doubt that war and repression will continue in the south-east and that tolerance will not be the watchword when dealing with opposition throughout the country.

For all my reports for RFI on Turkey November 2015 election click here 

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