Milliyet daily a lame duck, as Turkey's media crisis deepens


The crisis that enveloped the Milliyet daily, an old flagship among the center newspapers in Turkey, took a very sharp turn on Monday — an event that implicates even more suffocation of the already badly constrained media.

It reached its peak as Hasan Cemal (69), a veteran columnist and internationally renowned media figure — author of several groundbreaking books on Kurds, Armenians and journalism — resigned in protest of his column being rejected by the power-fearing proprietor, Erdoğan Demirören.

Both the censorship and his irrevocable decision to quit have sent shockwaves not only around the country’s tiny but vocal liberal-reformist circles but also raised the debate on the state of journalism to new levels.




As I gloomily predicted in my article titled “Crisis at a newspaper” (March 12), the chain of events, triggered by a scoop on the minutes of the meeting between Abdullah Öcalan and three Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputies on İmralı Island, brought to the fore a new, but a more severe, clash over the freedom to report by the newspaper.

The crisis escalated to great heights when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lashed out at the newspaper for publishing the minutes, but also quoted a line by Cemal’s piece (defending journalism) and added, “If this is journalism, down with it!”

The chain of events reads like a crystal-clear case study on how ruthlessly the independence of the media is being strangled by power politics and the “coalition of the willing” owner groups, who readily serve their outlets on a platter to the political executive of Turkey.

Let me follow up on what happened, since Cemal was shown — due to mismanagement of the editor — the “corner of shame” for two weeks by his column being kept closed, silenced.

Known for his firm stand, integrity and consistency, Cemal (who had proven his professional resilience during the time of the military junta during the 1980s as the editor of Cumhuriyet) filed an article at the end of the “ban.” In it, he continued to defend the role of journalism and criticized the attitudes of the media proprietors and government.

Milliyet’s editor, Derya Sazak, primarily responsible for publishing the scoop, found himself in very rough seas. Knowing that there already were a couple of telephone conversations between the prime minister and the proprietor, he tried to negotiate for independence, but in vain. He even tried to change the content of the column, which Cemal categorically rejected.

The end result is a veteran colleague silenced and a newspaper that from now on is a lame duck, with an editorial independence even more severely damaged, forced to publish news coverage and opinion in an even narrower scope.

At the time of the writing, Sazak had not handed in his resignation, and many in the media wonder why he still stays in the post.

Within the media, very few “dared” comment on the case. Milliyet sufficed with a brief note about the departure, while its columnists preferred to ignore it. In general, his colleagues look the other way either because other owners “ordered” them to do so, because they fear losing their jobs or because they are hostile to Cemal’s liberal views. The indifference tells even more about the miserable state of the media.

Responding to Erdoğan, Cemal wrote in his censored piece: “I had underlined a fundamental principle of my profession in those words. I argued that journalism and ruling a country are separate issues, and underscored the dividing line that set them apart. This was what I was saying in a nutshell: In democracies, politicians rule the country and reporters report!”

He continued: “Relations between the media and the government have always been problematic in Turkey. Political power groups have always tried to control the media and the journalists, with the red lines that they themselves have drawn. They have exerted pressure through economic, political and legal instruments. This has always been the case. The economic interests of proprietors … have given the political power groups the upper hand. The owners’ dependence on Ankara for their economic interests coupled with the second-class judiciary in Turkey have made it easier for the political power elite to manipulate the media.”