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December 16, 2012, Sunday

Earthquake at Taraf -- a new wound for journalism

The news reached me when I was driving to Bolu for a conference on Turkish media and its bleak future organized by the powerful Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB).

A colleague of mine, a liberal columnist who had lost his job because of his dissenting views on the powers that be, in a voice blended with anxiety, sorrow and frustration told me: “Ahmet Altan and Yasemin Çongar left Taraf with immediate effect. The proprietor seems to have accepted their resignation.” In one fell swoop the Taraf daily, one of the very few, truly independent newspapers in Turkey today, lost its editor and managing editor.

I found that I was not that surprised though I couldn't help feeling a little shocked. With every such news or every such move, these days as a journalist one feels a part of himself being torn apart, alienated and lonelier in a bitter environment.

But this news had a bigger magnitude. First, both are dear friends whom I have known for decades. Çongar, one of the best journalists this country has ever produced, and I have crossed paths many times. As rookies, we worked together at Cumhuriyet in the '80s. Our work in that high quality, reference daily, was defined clearly as a mission for human rights, democracy and freedom of speech.

Later we both found ourselves in London, working together again for the BBC World Service. Often, then as now, we found ourselves in a fight for the same values as well as defying the poisonous atmosphere fed by the powers and a hugely troubled, largely corrupt media.

The significance of the resignations -- and the wave of others in Taraf's departments and among its columnists that followed -- is that it only confirms the nature of real journalism today: a clear Don Quixote mission with a tragic, discouraging outcome.

Taraf's impact in recent years (it just recently celebrated its fifth anniversary) is much larger than itself. It was established by a group of colleagues who, in the wake of a huge political change taking place in the country, had decided to be part of the glasnost, encouraged by Turkey's EU accession and reform process. What united them was the notion of “enough is enough” with the bureaucratic tutelage, military-led political-social engineering and the culture of coups.

They were a bunch of liberals, pacifists and socialists -- ethnically blended free thinkers. What united them also was their determination to a no-holds-barred approach with the news. Unlike their colleagues -- many of whom hypocritically act as champions of press freedom in the so-called mainstream media today -- they said no to self-censorship and, time after time, reported on the ideologically and institutionally corrupt military apparatus and human rights abuses.

While newspapers like Hürriyet and others deliberately ignored the stories that whistleblowers provided them with, Taraf stood out since 2007 as the newspaper that everyone who was interested in Turkey's past, present and future bought every morning. It defined the agenda and its reporting played a key role in the opening of politically and legally delicate trials like Ergenekon, Sledgehammer and many others. It was also the newspaper that dared to publish information from WikiLeaks, causing a storm and a huge debate.

It took a serious and vocal distance from even the corrupt or cowardly media itself, which led to many enemies from within the very corps. The militarist segment of the media occasionally conducted campaigns to discredit it. This also had to do with the fact that Taraf was resolute in reporting about the Kurdish issue, hiding no facts, and being equally critical of both the state and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

It all sounds like a swansong for a tiny giant of a daily. Certainly those distinguished colleagues who remain there will do their best to struggle for its survival. But with the resignations of Altan and Çongar, the spirit of Taraf is weaker. Their enemies -- both among the powers and in the media -- express Schadenfreude, but in reality for Turkey 2012, their departure means journalism is facing even tougher conditions.

Soon, the winners of the first European Press Prize -- a European Pulitzer -- will be announced. Whoever wins it matters much less than these two who, more than anyone else in Europe, deserve it.

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