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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