Bilgin, formerly a renowned media boss, lost his television station and newspaper and is now standing trial on charges of illegal financial gain. Sunday’s Zaman talked to him about the Feb. 28 unarmed military intervention and its aftermath, which resulted in the resignation of a coalition government led by the Welfare Party (RP). Bilgin shared his knowledge of media-government and army-media relations at his daughter’s villa, where he had arrived after attending a court hearing. Bilgin, an ex-media mogul with badly hurt feelings -- himself someone who also hurt the feelings of others -- tried to answer our questions as frankly as possible.
Bilgin says, “The press considered the General Staff a semi-divine office. The media got to be more than the fourth estate [at the time of the 1997 coup].” Telling us not to be fooled by the unarmed nature of the Feb. 28 coup, Bilgin warns, “They would stage a coup today if they could.”
With regards to a videocassette incident targeting Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen at the time, he confesses that the independence of his station ATV was compromised.
Bilgin was born in 1940, and his career in journalism started at the Yeni Asır daily in İzmir, peaked at the Sabah daily in Istanbul and ended on Feb. 28, 1997. Being both a witness to and an insider during extraordinary periods throughout his career, which exceeds half a century, Bilgin was also one of the press actors of Feb. 28. He witnessed the major quarrel of Turgut Özal and Sedat Simavi first-hand. Here is a democratic record of the Turkish press, as Bilgin knew it, and was, once upon a time, a part of.
Do you ever question yourself about the Feb. 28 period?
Yes. We couldn’t achieve a high enough level of democracy. Then there was a competitive period. Their party, others’ parties -- I wasn’t happy about that. I tried to get in touch with then-Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz, but I couldn’t. People who were politicians then weren’t real politicians. Before Feb. 28, the RP was a radical entity according to journalists, and so it was being avoided. The political parties that could form the government were the ones outside the RP. This became a common consideration.
Why is the army so readily succumbed to?
For instance, there are realities, like Etem Menderes, foster child of [former Prime Minister] Adnan [Menderes], who betrayed Mr. Menderes. It is because then he was scared. There were soldiers and he thought, “They [the soldiers] are stronger.” It is the familiar story about worshipping power. In independent courts they hanged a relative of the late Mr. Menderes. Blood and weapons were in the picture.
Could it be explained only in terms of oppression?
In order to be a politician you need to have a connection with the army or be a junta supporter. If you side with power, then you get ahead. That is the improper thing in Turkey. That is the de facto position for some journalists. And in one period that was a de facto position for all of them.
Was the Sabah daily a part of the de facto situation?
We approached journalism more professionally. Zafer [Mutlu] said, “We set up a business here, we are trying to make money.” It was right, but he got into trouble. What is the converse of this approach? It is: We aren’t interested in making money; we will deal with forming and toppling the government. Producing a newspaper is a professional business. If you don’t take it as a business, then it is very dangerous. Turkey’s current situation is an example. There are few people who take it as a business. As the system [of media] doesn’t establish a fund within itself, they [media bosses] are living off someone. The Sabah daily was very strong when it first emerged. I got involved in the banking business and suddenly the state got involved in me. The guys who make newspapers will not be involved in any other business, their only occupation will be journalism.
Cassettes are being unearthed and in one recording some high-ranking soldiers are heard saying, “As soon as we are released from prison we will bring them [the government and the conservatives] down.” How do you evaluate this?
They would stage a military coup in Turkey if they could. But there isn’t a proper environment, and I think they won’t do such a thing as they can see that bad things would happen to them if they did. Will there be no murders from now on? There will be, but we will blatantly call a murder a murder. Isn’t the May 27 military coup a murder? Yes, it is, but we weren’t able to say this. In the past we used to celebrate it as a festivity. In the past, we used to celebrate it as if the May 27 coup d’état was a festive occasion.
What about journalists?
Previously the connection between soldiers and journalists would be established via newspapers’ branch offices in Ankara. For instance, while a newspaper representative was drinking at a bar in Ankara his boss would call and ask him: “Where are you? I couldn’t reach you.” He would answer, “I have just left the General Staff.”
Have you ever been to the General Staff?
Once. Former Chief of General Staff Çevik Bir invited me for a meal. We were made very welcome. Erol Özkasnak and Bir came. They complained about columnists. The issue was the columns of Çetin Altan. “Altan is one of the few intellectuals in Turkey,” I said to them. They got irritated. Then some files were brought. On one of them it was written “Hürriyet Group,” and the column of the writer was included. At the end of the column was the note of the General Staff. On another file was written “Dinç Group,” and another note was included. I asked him, “What is it?” Özkasnak replied, “We send them to lieutenants and higher-ranking generals.” I reacted, “Is it how the lieutenant generals and generals of our army read the paper?” He asked, “How should they read?” I said to him, “You hold the newspaper in this way [he demonstrates holding a newspaper], you turn the page and read it with enjoyment. You are writing explanations beneath the columns. Are our generals unable to understand what they read?” Then Çevik Bir interrupted, saying, “The Turkish Army, the army that founded the Turkish nation and state,” etc., etc. We moved towards the hall to have our meal. Fortunately, Özkasnak didn’t accompany us. We talked about the Kurdish issue during the meal. Bir told me that it wouldn’t be good to pamper the Kurds.
How do you evaluate the expression, “A pro-coup stance is in the genes of the Turkish press”? Where do these genes come from?
It isn’t about having a pro-coup stance, it is about being on the side of the powerful. I mean, it is thought in military and civil bureaucracy that the army has real power. In our country the officials who are appointed are more prominent than elected rulers. The biggest quarrel happens over the issue of the wages of deputies, and nobody cares about the wages of high bureaucrats. There is such a tendency. But in Turkey it is slowly disappearing.
You say, “I always had to work with leftist journalists,” when you came to Istanbul. So in what way did this affect the stance of the Sabah daily?
I had no alternative. They were all ‘68 generation; it was surely very difficult. Then some intellectuals in the country considered themselves more prominent and privileged than the rest of society. There was the situation that the Cumhuriyet daily summed up as, “People crowd the beach, citizens swim,” [which was an actual headline for a story about a crowded beach]. This headline points out the supposed superiority of the educated middle class over the rest: the people. This stance has been in place since the May 27, 1960 coup d’état, and it still is today.
How can fabricated news be published so easily?
There is misinformation; however, journalists being careless and going after drama is also in play. In those days there weren’t many news channels. The journalists would do what they wanted, and it is still the same; journalists are ideologically biased. Moreover, attacking the Democrat Party (DP) had no risks. That is the horrible aspect.
The cassettes that depicted Fethullah Gülen during the Feb. 28 period with extreme prejudice were first broadcast on ATV. Ali Kırca said that “I was the one who pushed the button.” You were leading the media group. How did the system operate?
They were broadcast on ATV and other channels. Whenever such cassettes or declarations from the army were received, Ali Kırca’s voice would change; some texts would scroll across the screen, and I would make a commotion, as I freaked out at him. I could only make a commotion. At that time Ayşenur Arslan was news director. It was evident that they [the military] had seized critical positions. Cassettes were coming. I didn’t realize that they were made up. I believed they were real.
If you were bothered, why didn’t you prevent them?
I learned about the cassettes after they were broadcast. The way I ran the business had already changed. The newspapers had turned into industrial corporations. I was spending half of my time abroad. I wasn’t attending news meetings at all.