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Turkish Newspaper Makes Waves Taking on Establishment

  • Dorian Jones

A small but spirited newspaper is taking on the establishment in Turkey and shaking up the compliant Turkish media. Taraf, the paper with sources deep within the military, has published scoop after scoop exposing military interference in politics. But, the paper is facing increasing legal and political pressure. For VOA, Dorian Jones has this background report from Istanbul.

The Taraf's editorial board is discussing the latest threat of prosecution by the Turkish armed forces. The threat follows the publication of leaked army documents accusing the military of negligence over the death of 17 soldiers in a recent attack by Kurdish separatists on a Turkish military outpost on the Iraqi border.

Deputy Editor Yasmin Congar warns that the newspaper could be raided anytime. But the editors agree to continue pursuing the story, despite the threat.

"It is clear to me that the military is angrier than ever," she said. "We have not seen the chief [of the military] come out to make such an angry statement before. But when you start questioning why is the war is going on? Why didn't you stop this attack? Is the military doing all it should? Is the Kurdish problem solvable through military means? If you don't ask these questions, the war will go on. If you ask these questions, if you bring out certain questions and perhaps where the military or the government did not do its job properly, then everyone in this country will start ask questions. Maybe we are questioning the legitimacy of the war itself."

Throughout the 25-year war against the Kurdish separatists, the PKK, Turkey's mainstream media has rarely questioned the generals in their handling of the conflict.

But Taraf has changed all that.

On its launch last November, with access to sources deep within the army's high command, it exposed attempts by the generals to interfere in Turkish politics. In an article, it exposed the ultranationalist Ergenekon, or Deep State, group and 86 alleged members, including senior military officers, now on trial, accused of trying to engineer a coup.

But it was Taraf's criticism of the army's handling of its war against Kurdish separatists that drew condemnation by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr. Erdogan says there is no place for weakness or hesitation in this fight. He says that no one should even attempt to show that security forces as being weak or hesitant. "We have lost some of our youngest sons to this," he says. "We have sacrificed our women, children and elders. We have been hurt, and are we still in pain."

Taraf is now fighting both the powerful army and the government, with many of its journalist facing the threat of arrest and prosecution under Turkey's tough anti-terror laws.

But with the war against the PKK claiming nearly 40,000 lives and with no end in sight, political scientist Soli Ozel of Bilgi University says the newspaper is playing a crucial role.

"It's really important," says Ozel. "You may or may not like the way they pursue these things. You may have problems with the kind of journalism they have been producing. But if it weren't for them we would not have been discussing these things. I think they have given a voice to a great unease amongst the population about the wisdom of continuing a war with no accountability."

Outside Taraf's office, demonstrators protested in support of the newspaper. The show of solidarity comes after reports that prosecutors were planning to raid the paper. This is Ceran Kener, a student who is protesting in support of the paper.

"Taraf is facing pressure from the military and politicians and it is importantly to show it is not alone. Taraf is a unique newspaper which is questioning the role of the military, the role of official ideology, and it does not have any limits," he said Kener.

The government is not only targeting newspapers.

Last month, a Turkish court blocked access to the popular popular blogging Web site, Blogger.com. Turkish courts have blocked access to more than 1,000 Web sites, many because of their political content, including You Tube, which it claims has videos criticizing the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Media studies professor Berke Bas of Bilgi University, says the bans demonstrates the control mentality of the state.

"The state has not caught up with the mentality of the modern times - how people are continuing their lives as individuals and how they are defying all these pressures, all of this censorship, all these efforts to limit their existence, their freedom expression. But technology is so illusive that you cannot control it. But the state is not aware of it. They are trying to impose pressure by banning a site that millions and millions of people use in the world," said Berke Bas.

Taraf's Congar says unless there are closed down, they determined to continue to publish and hold both the Turkish government and the military accountable for their actions.

"There are certain threats, a certain pressure, not only from the military but from the government as well. But it does not change much for us really," she said. "We are really just doing our job. We will keep doing this. Nothing will stop us. There will be threats there will be pressure. But the officials in Turkey, both civilian and military, will have to get used to life in a democratic society."

Every day Taraf faces the prospect of a raid by prosecutors and prosecution. Whether the paper suffers the same fate of previous publications that challenge the status quo by of being closed down, is now seen an important litmus test of press freedom in Turkey.

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