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December 17, 2012, Monday

Why was Taraf important?

I used the past tense in the headline deliberately because it has now become uncertain whether this liberal daily will be able to continue its editorial independence after the resignation of Ahmet Altan, editor-in-chief, and Yasemin Çongar, his deputy.

Taraf's independent and courageous stance that resisted unprecedented pressure from both the military and the government was unique in the Turkish media, and greatly relied on the mentorship of Altan, who is also a well-known novelist.

The owner of Taraf, Başar Arslan, who is also a publisher and the owner of a famous bookstore called Alkım, had a modest budget when he first suggested running a daily in Turkey to some journalists five years ago. Those senior journalists warned him at the time about the difficulties of running a purely independent daily due to the pressure that would come from both the military and political authorities. This would be the case, in particular in a country like Turkey, where media ownership was long ago seized by businessmen using this position of ownership as a tool to get state contracts. To grab a slice of the pie from state tenders, they might easily refuse to publicize or deem newsworthy information that would be harmful to their other interests.

In this sense, Taraf differed from the media ownership structure mentioned above because the owner stayed away from state contracts and preserved editorial independence in the real sense.

Taraf ran courageous stories, breaking taboos while opening Pandora's box, as no other daily could have. Its contribution to the democratization drive is undeniable.

It was Taraf that disclosed coup plans intended to unseat the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and culminated in the trials of the suspects. It was through stories that Taraf ran that the Turkish public learned about grave mistakes being made by the military in Turkey's 28-year fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Taraf has become the voice of all Turkish citizens' conscience, whether they are Kurds or the Armenian minority.

But the moment the AK Party government put the brakes on its democratic reforms and pretended to both rule and govern, as if curbing the military's power in politics was enough in the absence of going ahead with structural reforms to end the military tutelage system, Taraf also turned its arrows of criticism on the government.

The daily has accused Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government of becoming more and more authoritarian and allying themselves with the status quo. In addition, Taraf pioneered in criticizing the government over the deteriorating state of freedom of expression.

The resignations of Altan and Çongar have, in the meantime, received mixed reactions from the media.

Hasan Cemal, a veteran columnist writing for the Milliyet daily, wrote last Saturday: “Be sure that none of the papers except Taraf could have published the reports that this daily ran. Believe me that many problematic issues that have prevented democracy and law from flourishing were doomed to be left in the dark if there had been no Taraf. Taraf ended this darkness. I cannot stomach now that some windows are being closed."

Did Taraf face pressure that resulted in Altan's resignation due to the fact that the government did not hide its displeasure with his sometimes harsh criticism?

Arslan denied any link between government pressure and Altan's resignation.

Yet a recent statement made by a senior minister from the ruling party gives strong hints that Altan parting ways with Taraf was indeed a government operation. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, appearing on Kanaltürk TV last Saturday, criticized Altan's wording in his columns, and in particular his criticism of Erdoğan, which he described as mockery and insulting.

Arınç claimed that in criticizing the government Taraf pursued a line that intended to end the AK Party's existence.

"I will regret it if Taraf is closed down. Taraf should continue its publication by readjusting its line," Arınç added. He sent a veiled warning to Taraf concerning its future stance on the dose of criticism directed toward the government with these remarks. Arınç was also indicating the influence of this relatively low circulation daily when he stated that its criticisms were intended to end the AK Party's term in power.

Arslan has long been facing serious economic pressure because there have been no businessmen buying shares of Taraf for fear that they will come under pressure from both the military and the government.

Perhaps Arslan was no longer able to withstand the pressure coming from the government, and that resulted in Altan's departure.

According to the Wikipedia definition, true mentoring is about an ongoing relationship of learning, dialogue and challenge. Mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital and psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career or professional development.

Without Altan's mentorship, it is a big question if Taraf can continue its editorial independence and survive.

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