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June 13, 2012, Wednesday

The prime minister in boxing gloves

Turkey's national boxing team visited Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday and presented him with a pair of boxing gloves; the prime minister then posed for photographers with the red gloves on. The outcome was not a prime minister wearing boxing gloves, but rather a prime minister in them. He was boxing…

The question of whether posing in boxing gloves was a clever move is not my topic today. I will instead provide a review of the Turkish media to look at how (and at what size) the resulting picture was used by the dailies, and which news items accompanied it. In this way, I believe, it is possible to map out the positions of the newspapers vis-à-vis the prime minister -- and accordingly, on the two subjects he dealt with during his Tuesday parliamentary speech: Kurdish lessons and the abolition of special courts.

I do not intend to read the intentions of the editors-at-large here. Rather, I am reading the perceived intentions of the texts as published. It is the readers' response to a headline that defines what its words achieved, not the editors' intentions.

The first bite goes to my own newspaper: Today's Zaman placed the picture (4.5x5.5 cm) next to its main headline, “Prime Minister Erdoğan promises Kurdish as elective course in schools.” There was no mention of the special courts in relation to the picture. On the far side of the front page was another headline, this time under Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç's picture -- larger than that of the prime minister -- claiming “Planned [Code on Criminal Procedures] CMK revision stirs controversy within ruling [Justice and Development Party] AK Party.”

Reader response: Today's Zaman presented Erdoğan's boxing pose as a knock-out signal for statist dogma against Kurdish language education.

From among all the major newspapers I read on Wednesday, Zaman was the sole daily that chose not to spare space for the “boxing prime minister” on its front page. Zaman used the picture (6x6 cm) only on its 14th page, and in black and white, despite the fact that the promise for elective Kurdish courses was carried on the front page with another -- less aggressive if you will -- picture of the prime minister. The only reference to the special courts from the prime minister's speech published on the front page did not mention the possibility of closure, but rather Erdoğan's statement that the issue was not covered by the third or fourth judicial reform packages.

Reader response: Zaman does not want to see an aggressive prime minister.

Sabah utilized the photo in a similar manner to Today's Zaman, but of course the image was larger and more colorful. The picture (9x11 cm) was published to the right of the newspaper's nameplate, together with the headline “Historical step for Kurdish.” Below the picture was a smaller headline mentioning the possibility of the special courts' total abolition.

Reader's response: Sabah wants to present a courageous prime minister who overcomes the doctrines of the past, but is also ready to compromise.

The picture (19x18 cm) dominated Star's front page, and below it a caption read: “Special courts… anything can happen.” Underneath that, the main headline referred to Kurdish language courses: “Historic step from Prime Minister Erdoğan on ‘democratic initiative': Kurdish language revolution in education.”

Reader response: Star used the aggressive message of the photo only as it relates to the special courts, placing distance between the reformist message of the prime minister's speech and the boxing gloves.

Hürriyet had the picture (8x8.5 cm) together with that of opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, accompanied by a classic two-word Hürriyet headline: “Solution proposals.” The news item mentioned neither the Kurdish language courses nor the special courts on the front page. The first issue was dealt with on the newspaper's 28th page, the second on the 29th.

Reader response: Hürriyet used the picture only out of the appeal of the image itself. It associated its aggressive message with neither of the main themes of Erdoğan's speech.

Vatan used the picture (9.5x13.5) to accompany its main headline, which dealt not with the prime minister's speech but with that of the education minister: “The education year is getting longer.” Immediately below the picture was a box reminding readers of the prime minister's words that the special courts could be abolished altogether. The Kurdish language courses were mentioned only in one line, under a heading about English language courses.

Reader response: Vatan doesn't care as much about Kurdish language reform as it does the aggressive message of the picture. Even so, Vatan preferred to keep a low profile.

Milliyet edited the photo to increase the visibility of the picture (13.5x9.5 cm) it used with its main headline. The headline itself underlined the most aggressive sentence Erdoğan used about the special courts: “We have seen the realities… We can abolish them.” Milliyet referred to the Kurdish language aspect of the speech only in a small box and stressed two preconditions: The courses will be elective and will be opened only if enough students apply for them.

Reader response: Milliyet is not as happy with the Kurdish language courses as it is about the possible abolition of the special courts. It directed the aggressive message of the picture against the prosecutors and proponents of those courts.

Milliyet's approach was reversed in HaberTürk. The picture (16x11 cm) was once again the illustration for the main headline, but instead the daily stressed the Kurdish language reform and downplayed the abolition of the special courts. “And Kurdish is in schools,” read the large headline.

Reader response: Just like Today's Zaman, HaberTürk is willing to stress the freedom aspect of Erdoğan's speech, but does not want to neglect the special courts aspect.

Bugün and Yeni Şafak both used a picture including the boxers that presented the gloves to the prime minister. This made the picture far less aggressive. Bugün's picture (8.5x11.5 cm) was smaller than that of Yeni Şafak (13.5x24 cm), while its stress on Kurdish language courses was stronger. “Kurdish courses became a reality,” read Bugün's headline; Yeni Şafak's, “Kurdish is elective course.” Both newspapers mentioned the possible abolition of the special courts, but Yeni Şafak's page designers paid special attention to dissociating the boxing prime minister's image from a headline-less story mentioning the court-abolishing prime minister.

Reader response: Both newspapers love the prime minister for who he is and both support the Kurdish language initiative. By using the election-time motto of the AK Party -- “X was a dream, it became a reality…” -- Bugün issued a subliminal message that it in fact loved the pre-election prime minister more.

Both Taraf and Akşam dailies failed to refer to the Kurdish language courses on their front pages, and while both carried the special courts development in their headlines, there was a striking difference. Next to the prime minister's boxing picture (7.7x5.7 cm) Taraf had a main headline suggesting that the special courts divided the government, whereas Akşam used a larger picture (7.5x13 cm) and a drier headline, reiterating Erdoğan's statement that the special courts may be abolished.

Reader response: Taraf loves polemics; Akşam loves radio journalism.

If we rank the newspapers according to the dimensions of the boxing prime minister picture (from largest to smallest), we get the following list: Star, HaberTürk, Yeni Şafak, Milliyet, Vatan, Sabah, Bugün, Akşam, Hürriyet, Taraf, Today's Zaman, Zaman.

If we list them on their willingness to stress the possible closure of the special courts (again, high-low), the order is as follows: Milliyet, Star, Sabah, Vatan, Akşam, HaberTürk, Hürriyet, Bugün, Yeni Şafak, Today's Zaman, Taraf, Zaman.

And lastly, if we look at their support for the Kurdish language course (high-low), the order changes again: Bugün, Yeni Şafak, Today's Zaman, Sabah, HaberTürk, Star, Zaman, Hürriyet, Vatan, Milliyet, Taraf, Akşam.

I have done a lot of ranking here, and am afraid that this will be understood a kind of labeling. So I leave the commentary to the readers. Who do you think is pro-government? Who is working for greater freedom and who is more anti-interventionist when it comes to military interference in politics?

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