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December 16, 2012, Sunday

Taraf, democracy and freedom of the press

The Turkish daily Taraf is facing a deep crisis as the editor-in-chief, Ahmet Altan, and his deputy editor, Yasemin Çongar, resigned. Following the resignations of these two senior editors, some influential columnists resigned from the paper as well.

Taraf is a new paper, only five years old, but has changed the political culture and attitude towards the media because of its courageous publications on the Turkish military, the Ergenekon criminal network and coup planners as well as the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government. Without Taraf it would have been almost impossible for the AK Party government to tame the military and push them back into their barracks.

Furthermore, because of Taraf's position, many of the AK Party government's transgressions were brought into question, which angered Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. From time to time, Erdoğan openly and harshly criticized Taraf. Whenever he finds an opportunity he sends his army of lawyers to Taraf in order to castigate the newspaper.

Due to his domination over all matters, Turkish courts prefer to rule according to his demands, even though the ruling is against democratic standards. In the last few weeks, Altan was fined TL 15,000, which is very high in terms of the normal standard in fines, merely because he employed harsh language when referring to the prime minister.

Experts believe that Erdoğan would have lost a case he won in the Turkish judicial system if he had instead filed it at the European Court of Human Rights, (ECtHR) because the rulings of Turkish courts are far below the standard of democratic rulings.

If Erdoğan were to lose at the ECtHR, it would be a thought-provoking case because the Turkish government would have lost because the head of the government wanted to frustrate a newspaper by way of litigation.

Aside from openly pressuring the paper through his blatant criticism, as well as court cases, it is widely believed that he or his aides also pressure businessmen to not publish their advertisements in Taraf. When looking at the ads that are published in other newspapers and Taraf, one can easily assume that unsavory workings are occurring on that front, too.

There are other claims that Erdoğan puts pressure on Taraf, but these are enough to show how important it was to have an independent newspaper in Turkey, especially since Erdoğan garnered 50 percent of the popular vote in June 2011. He has truly become a leader who has very little tolerance for criticism and differing opinions.

Whenever one attempts to criticize him, his supporters mention the election results and polling numbers and say that half the nation supports the AK Party to justify their intolerant attitudes toward others, as if the people who voted for them have likewise become intolerant and authoritative.

It is widely believed that as a result of the political pressure on Taraf, the newspaper suffered a crisis after the resignations of the senior editors. This crisis is a benchmark by which to understand the standards of Turkish democracy because Taraf was the last bastion of refuge for democrats and civilian opposition, who fought alongside the AK Party government against the military but turned against this government as it moves away from democratic standards.

Certainly there are so-called opposition newspapers, such as Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Yurt, etc., which criticize Erdoğan in every edition. However, these newspapers have no influence over people because they are not opposing the government for the sake of democracy, rather they oppose the government because they represent a privileged group -- the old state elites -- who lost their privileges after the AK Party government came to power. In a way, they are not opposing the government for reasons of democracy; they are opposing the government to regain whatever they had lost. In other words, the government and the papers of the opposition are fighting over the issue to decide who controls the same anti-democratic system in the coming years.

On the other hand, Taraf was criticizing the government for not bringing about and not institutionalizing democratic standards, yet ironically the paper became the victim of the system it has been criticizing for a long time.

There is a common agreement among pundits who believe that the resignations of Altan and Çongar left a huge scar on the face of Taraf. I am not sure which scar is bigger, though, the scar on the face of Turkish democracy or that on Taraf.

I hope the prime minister will rediscover the reformist Erdoğan, who brought Turkey so close to the door of the EU, and restore his and Turkey's tarnished image among democratic countries.

Previous articles of the columnist