Turkish Politics and the News III: A Newspaper Called Taraf and its Many Foreign Fans

February 23, 2009
This is the third and final post in my "Turkish Politics and the News" trilogy. I hope it's been as fun for you as it has been for me. In my first post from a couple of days ago, I wrote about the machinations which had brought ATV-Sabah, the second largest media group in Turkey, under the control of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyıp Erdoğan's son-in-law, and the attacks that the largest media holding company in Turkey, the Doğan Media Group, is now facing from Turkey's finance ministry.  In my post yesterday, I discuss the Ergenekon trial, and my concerns that it is being used to not only unearth secrets from Turkey's "Deep State," but also to attack the opposition.
Today I'm going to talk about American coverage of Turkish politics, as well as discuss a newspaper, Taraf, which is becoming increasingly influential among foreign observers of Turkey.
In the great majority of stories written by American observers of Turkey, the Turkish military is typically presented as the "bad guy" of Turkish politics with respect to freedom of the press and democracy. And indeed, this reputation is richly deserved. The Turkish military has made four major interventions into Turkish politics since 1960, the most recent occurring when I was living here in 1997, events that I wrote about on numerous occasions back then. After the last full-scale military takeover of September 12, 1980, the military ruled the country directly for three years, initiating a particularly brutal and very unhappy period of modern Turkish history.
It is mistaken, however, to view the Turkish military as the only potential threat to democratic freedoms in Turkey. As I've written in posts on Monday and Tuesday of this week, I think there is also much to be concerned about the ruling AK Party's approach to press freedoms in Turkey, and also with respect to the state's handling of the Ergenekon trial.

Taraf is tough in taking on the military. But they
tend to be a little mild when talking about some
other issues 

I don't think this because I buy into fears that the AK Party is "Islamist." Indeed, when the AK Party was first elected to form a majority government in 2003, I was very happy and optimistic for Turkey's future. Finally, I thought, a party that is not hostile to the open display of Muslim piety--but which at the same time seemed less confrontational and more mainstream than its predecessors, Refah and Fazilet--has been elected in Turkey. Maybe this party, I hoped, could bridge the gap between state-imposed secularism and a Muslim majority in Turkey which wants both personal freedom and a government that is democratic and accountable for its actions.
My concern about the AK Party has nothing to do with their specific policy stands. Rather, I find the party to be increasingly authoritarian with respect to its relations with both the opposition and the Turkish media.
Don't try to find this perspective in the stories on Turkey appearing in the American media, however. In the New York Times, which is the only major American paper with a correspondent in the country, Ergenekon is treated largely as a straightforward case of government investigations into "ultranationalists," while the possibility that the Turkish state may also be using this investigation to intimidate opposition to the AK Party in the media and the military is largely ignored. Even worse was a recent discussion of Ergenekon on NPR, where critics of the government's handling of the trial come across as apologists for the Turkish military.
Not surprisingly, the major source for the NPR piece was Yasemin Çongar, who over the past year has emerged as heroine of sorts among the American correspondents covering Turkey. Çongar, a Georgetown graduate who worked for a decade in Washington as a correspondent for Milliyet and CNN-Türk, is the deputy editor of the Turkish newspaper Taraf, which began publishing in November of 2007. Taraf has been the subject of a number of very positive stories in the western (and particularly, American) media lately, including a favorable VOA story from a few months ago, a Der Spiegel columnist's designation of Taraf as "Turkey's most courageous newspaper," a long and extremely friendly interview with Yasemin Çongar  on the website of the OSI-funded European Stability Initiative* (with a great reader comment at the bottom that sharply challenges the uncritical nature of the interview), a very positive story on Taraf on the Times Online, and several favorable stories in blogs operated by foreign observers of Turkey, such as this one, this one, and this one. "Courageous," "independent," "plucky," and "scrappy" are all words which come up time and time again in each of these pieces to describe Taraf, and several of these outlets appear to rely mainly upon Taraf when reporting the news from Turkey.
Last month, I read a particularly long article on Taraf by Suzy Hansen, a freelance journalist and fellow at an organization called the Institute of Current World Affairs. Hansen's article, which originally ran in the National, an online journal based in the United Arab Emirates, repeats all of the same talking points that can be found in the articles linked to above, i.e that Taraf is a "courageous" and "independent" newspaper locked in a desperate battle against the Turkish military in its defense of press freedom. Hansen's piece was quickly picked up by other Western observers of Turkey, including the Kamil Pasha blog of Jenny White (who is quoted in Hansen's piece), and the website of a columnist for the Guardian. The article was also the subject of a brief commentary on a  website called the American Scene, where Reihan Salam (an associate editor at The Atlantic and self-described friend of the editor of the National), picking up on the general vibe of Hansen's article, describes Taraf as "a little Turkish newspaper that has taken dead aim at various Kemalist shibboleths and that is unraveling the shadowy Ergenekon conspiracy that is allegedly been behind some of the uglier episodes in the country’s recent history."
Hansen and others who have lauded Taraf tend to focus upon the strong stand the newspaper has taken against Turkey's military. And indeed, Taraf has gained notoriety in Turkey for publishing secret materials that were embarrassing to the country's military leaders. In Hansen's article, Istanbul businessman and self-described Taraf supporter Ishak Alaton is quoted as saying that Taraf's bad relationship with the military is the primary reason why the paper can't find advertisers. "They are afraid," said Alaton. And, indeed, I think he has good reason to say this. Just a few days after Hansen's article was published, Adnan Demir, who is on the editorial staff of Taraf, was charged with leaking secret military information, and could face three to five years in prison if convicted.

Alaton (who was also the subject of an interview with New York Times Istanbul correspondent Sabrina Tavernise a month later) is right to argue that companies are afraid to advertise in Taraf because they fear repercussions from the military and its allies. However, another reason why companies are reluctant to advertise in Taraf certainly stems from the belief, right or wrong, among many people here that Taraf is funded by the CIA, George Soros, Fetullah Gülen, the AK Party, or some other hidden source, a suspicion which has been aired frequently in interviews, Turkish blogs, and the columns of Taraf's competitors. To her credit, Hansen acknowledges the existence of these rumors, but then seems to dismiss them as yet another manifestation of Turkish paranoia. 

It is hard – for a great many reasons – for Turks to believe that an independent newspaper can exist in Turkey, and this scepticism speaks volumes about Turkey’s hard-to-explain but insidiously suffocating atmosphere.

In some ways, Turkey can feel as free as any other developed nation, but deeply-held fears readily strangle dissent. Memories of military coups and the steady creep of a violent neo-nationalism make ordinary Turks scared to do or say the wrong thing, and paranoid about ulterior motives.

Hansen has a very good point here. There is a tendency in Turkey to always want to look "behind the curtain" (perde arkası). At times--perhaps especially to an American--it seems like Turks are completely incapable of accepting political events at face value.  And perhaps, by even talking about this issue, I am contributing to the "strangling of dissent" in Turkey. I sincerely hope not.
My aim in writing about this is not to throw mud at Taraf. For all I know, the folks at Taraf are dedicated journalists who are fighting a system that is rigged against them, just like all the American press reports say they are. It's definitely not a bad paper, and is particularly good at covering stories relating to the Turkish military, mistreatment of the Kurds, and the Armenian genocide issue--the type of stories that Turkish newspapers generally don't cover. I'd say it's among the 3-4 Turkish newspapers that I read the most, and that's why I've included it on my blogroll of sources that I encourage people to consult.
I do, however, think it's worth commenting on how a newspaper that is increasingly becoming an opinion-maker for western observers of Turkey is at the same time widely considered by people inside Turkey to be a shill for a hidden benefactor. This, I think, is reflective of a world-view disconnect between people living in Turkey and people covering Turkey that is worth talking about.
Taraf is a newspaper which has made its name primarily in the context of its battles with the Turkish military. This, of course, is something that Americans rightfully cheer. At the same time, however, simply being an antagonist of the military does not prove a newspaper's "independence," particularly in the context of a power struggle between the AK Party and the military. As independent as Taraf may actually be, one shouldn't forget that there are lots of very non-independent partisans of the AK Party in Turkey who are also quite critical of the military. 

My mind is hardly made up about Taraf. However, if Taraf is truly an independent and courageous newspaper, I would like to see them take on more than just the military. I'd like to see them be more critical of the Finance Ministry's Putinesque tax investigation of the Doğan Media Group, or of the takeover of ATV-Sabah. I'd like to see them ask why people like Sedat Bucak and Mehmet Ağar have never been questioned in connection with the Ergenekon investigation, even as folks like Cumhuriyet editor and publisher İlhan Selçuk have been thrown behind bars. Cumhuriyet (which is hardly independent) raises these questions all the time, and newspapers in the Doğan group (such as Hürriyet, Milliyet, and Radikal) have also become increasingly aggressive in their reporting since a war of words erupted between their boss and Prime Minister Erdogan in September of last year. What I haven't seen, however, is Taraf take a stand on these issues. Taraf's reputation for toughness and independence notwithstanding, the newspaper's take on the AK Party government is actually rather tame.

Maybe the people at Taraf simply believe that a strong political party, even an authoritarian one, is required to break the grip the military holds over politics in this country. This is, of course, a potentially valid argument, but not something that I'm ready to sign on to by any means. 

Then there is the question of Taraf's funding. The newspaper carries very little advertising. On the 10-12 occasions I've bought Taraf on the street, I've never seen more than 10 ads or so in the paper, nowhere near the frontal assault on the senses to which one is subjected in the largest of Turkish newspapers like Hurriyet, Milliyet, or Sabah. Hansen says the paper makes up for its lack of advertising "by selling ads for 500 and 1000 lira ($293-$586) to largely anonymous individuals." I don't know very much about the newspaper business, but I'm pretty sure it takes a lot more money than this to put one out, especially if you have a circulation of 50-60 thousand, which is what Taraf editor Çongar claims in Hansen's article (she says 60-70 thousand in a separate interview with a Turkish journalist).

In any case, the sale of ads to anonymous individuals still doesn't tell us anything about where the money is coming from. In an interview conducted in Turkish, Çongar again denies that Taraf has received funds from the CIA, George Soros, or Gülen, but claims that she doesn't know the numbers relating to how much the newspaper may be losing, or earning. Nowhere , however, is she asked point-blank where they get their financing. Rather, Çongar simply denies one by one various theories about where the money is coming from (and also denies the rumor that her husband, an American whom she describes as "an academician who also did some diplomatic work for a while," is in the CIA).

While Hansen should be commended for at least raising the questions that people here are asking about the origins of Taraf's financing (which is much more than most people have done), the answers she was given still seem pretty vague. Indeed, how does a company  newspaper like Taraf seemingly come out of nowhere, manage to hire a number of columnists away from more established and widely-read newspapers, then continue to function despite running virtually no ads at all?  Is Taraf's founder, Başar Arslan, simply going broke on this project? We don't know, because he refused to talk to Hansen for her article--something else which seems a little odd given Hansen's very friendly portrayal of the paper in her piece. 

Also interesting is the issue of Taraf's connections to certain state authorities. Particularly with regard to the Ergenekon trial, Taraf has managed to frequently scoop the competition with reports (often leaked by the largely AK Party controlled national police force) which have embarrassed military officials. As Hansen writes, this has created some sore feelings among Taraf's competitors, something which is no doubt a factor in the spreading of rumors about Taraf's funding.

For a time Taraf seemed to break a new Ergenekon story every other day, and this too raised the eyebrows of sceptics. “I don’t see a journalistic achievement,” said one experienced Turkish journalist. “They just gobbled up what the police intelligence was leaking them regarding Ergenekon. In terms of challenging the state – sure, maybe [that is an achievement],” the journalist continued. “But they have gone overboard, and basically came across as a paper that is just out there to attack the military. In their reckless columns day in day out talking about how corrupt the military is, I didn’t find responsible journalism.”

So, Taraf carries only a minimum of advertising, yet is able to sell more newspapers per day than Radikal, not to mention hire journalists away from other papers. Nevertheless, the paper survives thanks to the support of anonymous friends. At the same time, the paper has contacts in the police who allow Taraf to consistently scoop the competition with regard to Ergenekon, a news story that, with one fell swoop, could end up neutralizing not only the political opposition but also the army. Some parts of this story do seem a little strange, but could be explained in a variety of ways. Perhaps there is more to this story "behind the curtain," but perhaps not. 

In any case, I am quite certain that the treatment Taraf has been receiving from American correspondents is unrelated to the source of the newspaper's financing. I'm not, I'd like to emphasize, trying to argue that the individuals who have been praising Taraf are secretly in the tank for the CIA. Rather, the newspaper's popularity among western observers of Turkey clearly stems from its approach and perceived independence--not to mention the connections of someone like Çongar, who has spent so much time reporting the news from Washington.
Indeed, there is an obvious presentiment among Americans towards the economically neoliberal, anti-statist and anti-military view that Taraf emits. And this presentiment, even when we leave the question of Taraf's funding to one side, is also a little bit troubling in that it seems to have created a virtual army of commentators who cover political events in this country from strikingly similar perspectives. For some people, Cumhuriyet is a crusty old fossil, "serv[ing] the old-guard secular elite." Taraf, on the other hand, is hip, geared towards the world citizens of Istanbul and other urban centers. And it must also seem comfortably familiar to foreigners covering Turkey, especially Americans.
After all, Taraf's writers speak English, have lived in the US, and can talk about their country in a language that Americans and other foreigners can readily understand. Describing a Taraf party she attended, Hansen approvingly notes the presence of "a bonfire, American R&B music, lots of smoking, a little dancing, [and] beer on ice in large bins." Sounds like it was a fun party, and something tells me George Clinton probably wasn't on the playlist at the last party thrown by those sourpusses over at Cumhuriyet.
But all the same, the folks at Cumhuriyet and other opposition newspapers (among whose ranks we now must include the Doğan Group papers) have something to tell us that we're not getting from Taraf. And these days, if an issue isn't taken seriously on the pages of Taraf, then there's also a good chance that you won't be hearing much about it in western media coverage of Turkey, either.
Ultimately, there are two points I want to make here. First of all, I think that people should be made aware of the credibility gap that exists between what is emerging as the west's favorite Turkish newspaper and the attitudes of Turks towards Taraf (though it should be noted that many non-Turkish citizens of Turkey, such as Kurds and Armenians, do appear to hold the paper in high esteem). Secondly,  I think it's important to keep in mind that the military is not the only potential threat to democratic freedoms in Turkey.  There is much more to worry about here than "Kemalist shibboleths." Both the AK Party's policies towards the media and the strange shift that the Ergenekon trial has taken seem to be indications of this.
It is unquestionably very important to support media and organizations which are working towards the democratization and "civilianization" (sivilleştirme) of Turkey, and it can take an enormous amount of courage to stand up to the military in this country. At the same time, however, in a battle royale between the military and the AK Party, we shouldn't assume that either party is wearing the white hat.
* The interview was conducted by an Open Society fellow who is the director of the European Security Initiative, which in turn is funded by the Open Society Institute

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