The Dismal Fate of the Journalist Who Infuriated Turkey's PM

Censorship of an article criticizing the link between wealth, government and the press stirs a heated debate on the limits of press freedom in the country.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“I have always admired people who write their opinion freely. What was done to Cemal is a disgrace. You can agree or disagree with someone’s opinion, but I am talking about the stance the newspaper has taken. If pressure is being applied to him, the newspaper has to oppose this. The prime minister has said after all that he or his government have not applied any such pressure.” This statement was made to journalists by Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul at the end of his visit to Riga at the end of last week. Indeed, these are strong words from the president of a country in one of the highest spots on the list of countries that least preserve freedom of the press, and where at least 49 journalists are imprisoned or under arrest.

Gul was referring to a disturbing incident that occurred last month in Turkey, the repercussions of which are refusing to fade. At its center was veteran commentator Hasan Cemal, who resigned from the prominent newspaper Milliyet, where he had worked since 1998 − in the context of the refusal by its editor-in-chief Derya Sazak to publish an opinion piece in which Cemal criticized the nefarious relationships in Turkey between wealth, government and the press. All this happened after a period of two weeks during which the editor refused to publish Cemal’s articles in the wake of a harsh reprimand of the newspaper − and indirectly of Cemal − from Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan.

Leaks infuriated Erdogan

Erdogan’s wrath stemmed from the fact that Milliyet was the only newspaper that printed the minutes of discussions held in February between representatives of the Turkish Kurdish party and Abdullah Ocalan, head of the PKK ‏(Kurdistan Workers Party‏), with whom the government is holding reconciliation talks. The discussions, which were supposed to have been secret, were leaked to Milliyet and included statements that kicked up a big storm in Turkey. Among other things, Ocalan is cited there as having promised to support Erdogan as the next president of Turkey, on condition that he solve the problem of the Kurds, “Otherwise we will fight him with a force numbering 50,000 fighters,” and also that Erdogan’s ruling “Justice and Development Party is aspiring to hegemony but we can’t allow that.”

Erdogan saw this leak as a clear conspiracy on the part of his rivals to scuttle the reconciliation with the Kurds and do direct damage to the policy of resolution of the conflict, which he has been pursuing for three years. About a week after the transcript was published, Erdogan lashed out against the newspaper in a public appearance, declaring: “This kind of journalism should go to hell.”

It wasn’t Cemal who published the contents of the secret talks but rather the paper’s reporter Namik Durukan; Cemal only wanted to write a column defending the publication of the transcript. His colleagues, commentators Hasan Pulur and Can Dundar, tried to do the same and their pieces were also spiked. According to reports in the Turkish media, it was Milliyet’s owner Yildirim Demiroren who authorized the editor to stop publishing opinion pieces about the topic. Demiroren and editor-in-chief Sazak have denied these rumors but there’s not a media person in Turkey who believes the denials. “Demiroren takes orders from Erdogan and passes them along,” a Turkish journalist has told Haaretz. “The reason for this isn’t connected to journalism but rather to money.”

Yildirim Demiroren is the son of Erdogan Demiroren, the owner of the large gas distribution company Milangaz, which enjoys close ties with the government. Yildirim is also president of the Turkish Soccer Federation and before that he was president of the Besiktas Soccer Club. In order to be elected president of the federation, the younger Demiroren obtained the support of most of the sports club and also a warm recommendation from Prime Minister Erdogan, which made a crucial contribution to the decision. The sports clubs need government support and closeness to the prime minister is part of the deal.

Collegial gesture

Moreover, Yildirim Demiroren bought the newspapers Milliyet and Vatan from press mogul/businessman Aydin Dogan, a billionaire who owns the Dogan Holdings conglomerate, which is active in the fields of energy, construction, trade and tourism around the world. Dogan had to sell some of the newspapers and television stations he owned after Turkish tax authorities in 2008 imposed on him an unprecedented $2.5 billion fine when he was convicted of tax evasion.

At that time Dogan accused the tax authorities of having acted under instructions from Erdogan, saying the prime minister wanted to take revenge on Dogan because of the harsh criticism he was subjected to in the billionaire’s newspapers. The deal for the acquisition of the two newspapers, which was estimated at about $60 million, would ordinarily not have been made without the buyer requesting and receiving Erdogan’s blessing. That’s how things work among friends.

The price was paid by the journalists, who in any case are deeply afraid of the newspaper owners, who constitute the most efficient censorship barrier. However, in a fine gesture among colleagues, commentator Ihsan Yilmaz of Today’s Zaman gave the slot intended for his column to the publication of Cemal’s piece that had been spiked at Milliyet. In it, Cemal writes: “The economic interests of media bosses outside the area of journalism have given the political power groups the upper hand. In other words, the dependence of media bosses on Ankara for their economic interests or the excessive power of Ankara in economic issues, coupled with the second-class judiciary in Turkey, have made it easier for the political power elite to manipulate the media.”
Thus, when President Gul accused Milliyet of not giving backing to its writers, there was at least one voice inviting him to direct his remarks to the source that stands above the newspaper owners − Erdogan.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul, center, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Chief of Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug during a meeting in Ankara.Credit: AP

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