The Cumhuriyet Case – Press Freedom in Danger

3 mins read

By Sophie Mainz

Uğur Mumcu, Bahriye Üçok, Ahmet Taner Kışlalı, Muammer Aksoy, Ümit Kaftancıoğlu, and Cavit Orhan Tütengil. These were the names of contributors to Turkey’s oldest newspaper, Cumhuriyet. Cumhuriyet, a name that stands both literally and content-wise for the republic, and for the strongest oppositional voice in the country. All of the contributors were killed between the years 1979 to 1999; all of them died because they publicly fought for the newspaper’s ideals. While their cases remain officially unsolved, their resisting quest for freedom of expression and media recently entered a new dimension of Turkish censorship. Oppositional perspectives continue to be silenced throughout Turkey, most recently this also extends to the reporting of Cumhuriyet.

The newspaper’s founding motto, formulated in the very first issue, dates back to 1924: the fight for a Turkish republic founded by Mustafa Kemal, who in Turkey is referred to by his byname Atatürk, meaning “the father of the Turks”. Back then, the newspaper reported symphonically to Atatürk’s state reforms that still constitute a large part of Turkish identity. Over time, and with changes in government, Cumhuriyet turned towards a more independent agenda. Today, the central-left newspaper is world-renowned for its stand on democracy and laicism, and for following a social-liberalist course. Not to forget that most of its contributors outspokenly support the case for Kurdish independence. For this stance, the makers of the paper have paid a heavy price: no other newspaper is facing as many litigations, and many of the journalists receive death threats on a regular base. 

In May 2015, Cumhuriyet reported on the Turkish government delivering weapons to Jihadi groups in Syria. The newspaper released detailed footage that quickly spread throughout international media coverage, showing trucks belonging to the Turkish National Intelligence Agency in the border region to Syria. Erdoğan’s response was swift, accusing the newspaper of treason. He declared that the editors and journalists responsible for the report would have to pay for their provocation, as they severely hurt the image of the country. What followed was the detention of almost 20 journalists, some of whom are still waiting for their sentence, some having been released, while others received sentences of up to eight years in prison. By December 2016, almost half of the newspaper’s reporters had been imprisoned by the Erdoğan government. The case is unique in the sense that an editorial policy is held accountable for criminal charges.  Several human rights organisations condemned the trial as a case where journalism was considered to be a crime and journalistic activity served as evidence. 

In the broader picture, Turkey gradually dropped down to rank 157 out of 180 countries in the annual ranking of the World Press Freedom Index published by the organisation Reporters Without Borders in 2018. Since the coup attempt in June 2016, the Turkish government closed down dozens of media outlets and arrested 319 journalists, of whom some 180 are still kept under arrest. Many of them already spent a year in prison before their trial, and long sentences are becoming the new norm, with some reporters facing life-long sentences. As Reporters Without Borders put it: “Turkey is again the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists.“.

At first sight, it seems that Cumhuriyet is the last remaining large newspaper that continues critical reporting despite all these obstacles. But in fact, the Cumhuriyet Foundation that publishes the paper recently underwent a power change. In September 2018, a Supreme Court ruling dismissed several members of staff, primarily from the newspaper’s board. The appointment of a new board came along with a shift in the editorial’s stance. To demonstrate their dissent almost 30 journalists, some of whom had been imprisoned before, resigned right away. The new editorial is more nationally aligned, and it opposes Kurdish independence. This symbolises a stark move towards the agenda of the Turkish government, and away from the newspaper’s past identity.

It seems the government has eventually silenced all press opposition. For journalists in Turkey, the internet is the last remaining political space to express criticism and disagreement. Those who have formerly been published in national newspapers are now using Twitter to voice their opinion, while others are forced to publish their texts in foreign press outlets. Furthermore, channels such as Medyascope TV are broadcasting news shows via Facebook, Periscope and YouTube in an attempt to reintroduce pluralistic debates to the Turkish media landscape. The goal of these efforts is not necessarily to become the voice of the opposition movement, but rather to focus on objective and independent journalism. 

The formerly influential news outlet Cumhuriyet, however, remains nothing more than the shadow of the press freedom and the nuanced political discourse it fought for all these years. One of the columnists who just left his position summarises the occurrences thus: “In Turkish, we speak of a rose garden without thorns. For Erdoğan, the Turkish media landscape now represents a rose garden without thorns.”

Cover photo: Hilmi Hacaloğlu

The cover photo shows protests against the 2015 arrest of then editor-in-chief Can Dündar and fellow journalist Erdem Gül.

Sophie Mainz is a postgraduate student in political science. She’s dedicated to topics such as migration, human and animal rights, and keeps moving around the world herself. If you feel like having a lengthy conversation, go talk to her about rock climbing, yoga or meditation, and voilà, your evening plans are set.

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