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April 24, 2012, Tuesday

The media actors of the postmodern coup

It is an undeniable fact that the mainstream Turkish media played a significant role in making possible the Feb. 28, 1997 postmodern coup, with the enormous support they lent to the military’s illegal campaign against the coalition government, which was forced to resign in the end.

What made the 1997 intervention postmodern was the mobilization of an army of civilian allies who voluntarily defended the military over alleged threat of “Islamic fundamentalism,” by evoking the reactions of the press and many non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) carried out both the 1997 postmodern coup and the four other military interventions based on Article 35 of the Internal Service Law.

The problem with Article 35 is that it appoints the TSK to protect and supervise, as opposed to a civilian political authority. Still, there is no will in Parliament to lift this article and adopt comprehensive military reforms that will end the remnants of militarily dictated laws. More importantly, a new constitution should be rewritten this year, as pledged by all the political parties, to replace the militarily dictated constitution of 1982. Putting into force these legal and constitutional reforms will make the ongoing trial and investigations of those who either staged coups or were caught planning coups more effective in ending the system of military tutelage.

More than 20 retired and active duty military officers who are accused of playing significant roles in the 1997 postmodern coup were put in jail since the prosecutors launched a probe almost two weeks ago to investigate those responsible for the unarmed intervention.

Among those arrested were once-powerful retired Generals Çevik Bir and Erol Özkasnak who were, at the time of the coup, deputy chief of General Staff and secretary general of the Turkish General Staff (TGS), respectively. Retired Col. Hüsnü Dağ, who was in charge of press relations during the process that culminated with the 1997 coup, was also arrested.

Retired Gen. Bir emerged as the central figure among the architects of the coup, together with Özkasnak and Dağ, because they were the most outspoken actors of the 1997 coup process, appearing in the media very frequently. They never hesitated in making public, unpleasant and sometimes insulting remarks about then coalition government.

The trio of Bir, Özkasnak and Dağ was tasked by the TSK to recruit journalists to discredit the government, among other things. The trio leaked fake information about academics, politicians and businessmen, whom it claimed were involved in extremist Islamic fundamentalism.

Life has been harder for journalists like me because of this trio’s campaign of slander, leveled against many figures in the media who did not want to collaborate with them in their dirty business of preparing the ground to topple the coalition government.

The military at the time was also exerting enormous pressure on journalists who were writing articles that did not necessarily relate to internal politics but dealt with issues such as problematic military-dictated arms procurement policies. The military, particularly through the above-mentioned trio, put unprecedented pressure on the media to dictate the articles that they would like journalists to write.

I remember receiving phone calls several times from retired Gen. Özkasnak, warning me against writing articles criticizing the military’s arms procurement policies that were mostly ill-defined or corrupt.

Interestingly, at the time, retired Col. Dağ -- who is now in jail for his role in the 1997 coup, used to be very sympathetic with foreign journalists who had the obvious aim of gaining approval from Western capitals’ for the military’s pending coup, as well as with Turkish journalists who volunteered to be mouthpieces for the TSK.

Prosecutors asked Özkasnak last week about the use of the media during the 1997 coup process. He responded that he executed orders received from his superiors, whom he named as Bir and former Turkish chief of General Staff, retired Gen. İsmail Hakkı Karadayı. Özkasnak was later put in jail for the role he played in the coup.

Özkasnak response to the prosecution was an attempt to save himself from judicial scrutiny. But obeying unlawful orders also constitutes a crime.

But I clearly remember that Özkasnak greatly enjoyed following orders that focused on intimidating the media. A list of media members who were allegedly involved in the 1997 coup are said to have been in the hands of the prosecutors. This means that soon some media members, either as suspects or witnesses, may be invited by the prosecutors for a testimony.

Understanding the role if the media in the 1997 postmodern coup will play a critical role in deterring journalists from volunteering to be used in coups and propaganda campaigns in the future.

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