Tragedy of Turkey’s Cumhuriyet Daily: A Kemalist Civil War?

As six former Cumhuriyet staff members go back to prison, the new administration’s role in their imprisonment once again warrants scrutiny.

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Six former members of the Cumhuriyet daily. (Photo: Twitter)

On Thursday, six former workers of the Cumhuriyet newspaper went back to prison in western Turkey to complete the rest of their jail term after a regional appeals court upheld their prison sentences delivered by a local court last year.

This came as a new, demoralizing blow to press members in a country where the media landscape has already been battered by the post-coup crackdown and purge.

Yet, it took hours for the Cumhuriyet daily to publish a story about its former staff members going back to prison. What prompted the Cumhuriyet daily was a tweet from Nadire Kalkan Gursel, the wife of former Cumhuriyet columnist Kadri Gursel, who held the new administration responsible for what was happening.

“Look at this. @cumhuriyetgzt cannot report this. It is because of you, Sir. Shame on you! Can you comfortably sit in that newspaper? It is Mustafa Balbay who started this process,” Gursel wrote on Twitter.

The predicament of the Cumhuriyet daily was different in nature than the tragedy of other media outlets which became targets of a brutal clampdown by authorities following a botched coup in 2016. There was an internal element in the Cumhuriyet case; a rebellion launched by former members to take over the management of the board and newsroom of Turkey’s oldest newspaper, which had been found with the endorsement of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s to diffuse the ideology and principles of the Kemalist revolution.

Without having command of this dimension of the story, it would be implausible to grasp the core elements of the drama playing out in and around the Cumhuriyet.

In late 2016, I wrote elsewhere about the power struggle between different factions of Kemalism over the soul and editorial policy of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, which is associated with Kemalism more than any other media outlet throughout the republican history. There is a prologue that set the stage for Thursday’s re-imprisonment of six members.

What started two and a half years ago as a legal challenge to the Foundation that governs Cumhuriyet culminated in a full-scale takeover in September last year, precipitating a mass exodus of writers, reporters and staff members. More than 22 journalists and personnel quit the newsroom after the new board.

The Cumhuriyet has recently been scarred by a prolonged squabble among two factions, a power struggle that tells a lot about a less noticed, but a long-brewing war between two schools of Kemalism that saturated editorial policies of Cumhuriyet over the past century.

With the takeover, the factional fissures were laid bare and the secular ultra-nationalist wing of Kemalist elites achieved what they longed for: complete control of the board and newsroom of Cumhuriyet at the expense of moderate, Western-friendly and centrist Kemalist figures.

“After raids, legal proceedings, arrests & imprisonment of its journalists, last independent newspaper #Cumhuriyet now taken over by ultra-nationalists, aligned with President #Erdogan. Is this final blow to what was left of press freedom in #Turkey?” Kati Piri, Turkey rapporteur for the European Parliament, then wrote on Twitter in September 2018.

The obscure war burst open into full public view, with sides pouring their embitterment and resentment on social media, adding a new twist to the ongoing transformation of Turkey’s already battered opposition media.

Muge Kirikkanat, Mustafa Balbay, a lawmaker from main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Alev Coskun cherished the moment with rapture, while Kadri Gursel, Musa Kart, Asli Aydintasbas and other leaving writers offered elegy and mourning for the loss of the last stronghold of opposition media.

Metin Feyzioglu, the president of Turkey’s Bar Association, celebrated the change. “Cumhuriyet again… Now, we have a new reason to wake up every morning with hope,” he wrote.

Cumhuriyet, unlike other corporate or private companies, is run by a foundation that enjoys self-management and self-reliance both in administrative and economic terms. Part of the reason for this was an inheritance from Ataturk, the founding father of the modern Turkish Republic. This has long given the daily a wide latitude and an acute sense of independence in the face of market pressure or the fear of political interference. To the maximum effect, it long used this privilege.

The factional war is about who rules and manages the newspaper. It only deepened after now-exiled Can Dundar’s editorial leadership during which the daily saw a widening outreach to leftist and some liberal figures.

As soon as the new administration took power, Alev Coskun, the new president of the foundation, unleashed a barrage of criticism against the former board members, accusing them of emptying the treasury.

Orhan Erinc, former editor-in-chief and former board head, broke silence on behalf of his friends in Sept. 18. “After a slander that coffers were pocketed, it became imperative to break this silence on behalf of myself and my friends. We understand this new Cumhuriyet administration. They have to make public forget about their role in and contribution to 1,5 and 8-year prison sentences of 12 Cumhuriyet personnel,” he said in a statement.

For this reason, he argued, the new board needed to divert public attention, change the national conversation from the core issue to trivial and groundless ones.

He challenged the new Coskun administration and said nobody could frame the former board with charges of mischief, malfeasance and embezzlement.

On Thursday, he was furious and resented. “Are you happy?” he asked the editors of the Cumhuriyet after its story about the re-imprisonment of former staff members.

New Cumhuriyet With Different Outlook

It should be borne in mind that new masters of Cumhuriyet do not share the opposition by the former administration led by Orhan Erinc against the Erdogan rule in the same fashion. The Perincek group’s alignment with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian government is no secret in the public domain. And the new Cumhuriyet managers further skewed toward Perincek’s fold.

Some members of the group have either been implicated or convicted in notorious Ergenekon and Balyoz trials. Deeply grudged as they were, Perincek and Balbay emerged as ardent supporters of Erdogan’s zealous crackdown, especially on Gulen people. Absurd though it may seem, the odd alliance between Erdogan and Perincek faction appeared to be lasting more than hitherto imagined. It firmly took hold despite a considerable degree of skepticism among observers about the prospect of its endurance.

Odatv, a media arm of the secular Eurasian ultra-nationalist groups aligned with Perincek, emerged as one of the main beneficiaries of the change as a number of columnists and journalists from Odatv moved to Cumhuriyet late last year.

Not surprisingly, the editorial line of Cumhuriyet has since changed. While Dundar and his successors adopted a more inclusive line toward some liberal and more moderate Kemalist figures, the new Cumhuriyet abandoned efforts of deepening the reach of the newspaper.

The longstanding view of a monolithic, unitary Kemalist bloc has, albeit belatedly, no longer had any relevance to realities given widening divisions between different factions. This should be an eye-opening development for Turkey observers and experts who failed to see Perincek’s outsize influence and ultra-nationalist seculars’ endless efforts to subvert Kemalist institutions, like the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and media outlets like Cumhuriyet and Sozcu.

The CHP was another platform over which a subtle tug of war took place along similar lines. The party has found itself torn apart in this simmering battle between the pull of diverse factions. On the one side, the painful memory of Ergenekon/trials and the grudge it aggravated remains conspicuously salient — a factor that has paralyzed the CHP from pursuing a consistent and decisive policy course against the devastating purge in the military; on the other side, the desire to see the completion of the purge of Gulenists from every sector of the state apparatus, including the army, is stronger as ever.

The latter element pushed the CHP and the Cumhuriyet daily to unquestioningly embrace the government’s scorched-earth policies to cleanse any public worker or official over the slightest hint of an association with the Gulen Movement at the expense of the integrity of institutions and the rule of law. The purge has become a cause celebre on the secular quarters of society and political spectrum.

But the embrace of the purge has created a moral dilemma for the CHP and Cumhuriyet daily, which appalled by the epic proportions of dismissals. The CHP’s confused state regarding the post-coup purge gives the image of a fractured and divided party. It opposes or at least pretends to oppose the purge, yet it endorses anti-Gulenist cleansing with little regard for the implications on Turkey’s justice system, which has been rotten by the machinations of the purge.

In this story, the CHP took another hit after the Cumhuriyet seizure last year. A small group of ultra-secular figures emerged from the fringes and obscurity to mainstream politics, coming closer to accumulating unexpected power to shape the political course of Kemalist politics. The drift further toward the line of Perincek’s school of Kemalism stood to test the waters within Turkey’s grand old party (CHP) about the new direction of the party after past years’ electoral debacles. But that fear proved to be misplaced in the March 31 elections.

The remarkable achievement of winning Istanbul and Ankara from President Erdogan’s party reinvigorated the dispirited opposition party. The CHP did not only win the vote against Erdogan’s alliance, but also the mainstream part of the party defeated subtle efforts of the ultranationalist wing and Perincek fold to influence its policymaking structure.

The Cumhuriyet daily, however, seems a lost cause.

When the newspaper finally posted several tweets, reporting about six former members’ entry to Kandira prison in the western province of Izmit, former Cumhuriyet journalist Ahmet Sik issued a correction:

“This is the truth: “With a plot after current Cumhuriyet daily administration and some of its workers’ collaboration with the government, journalists, who were released after months of imprisonment over their professional activities, were again sent back to jail. @cumhuriyetgzt

In another tweet on Friday, Sik noted that those figures, who emerged as opportunists to fill the spaces emptied by the dismissed and imprisoned staff members, should not be forgotten.

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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