Problems With The Washington Post’s Press Freedom Heroes in Turkey

On January 1st, the Washington Post to invited Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of the daily Zaman newspaper, to write an op-ed related to his own arrest, as well as that of an executive at Samanyolu television network. Both Zaman and Samanyolu are part of the media affiliated with the Gülen movement in Turkey.

The op-ed itself include a number of important sentences on Dumanli and Zaman’s strong defense of free speech in Turkey. For example:

The two critical turning points came in 2013: [Erdoğan’s] government’s harsh treatment of protesters in Gezi Park and the systematic obstruction of justice after a major corruption scandal. Since then, Erdogan has branded dissenters and critics as traitors who are part of a vast international conspiracy to topple him.In the eyes of the regime, the journalists, TV producers and screenwriters detained by the police on Dec. 14 are members of an “armed terrorist organization” threatening the sovereignty of the state. Don’t look for confiscated arms, attack plans or suicide bombers disguised as journalists. Our fault was to report on government actions that are undermining the foundations of a democratic Turkey.Anyone who strays is harassed or fired. But as members of the free press, or whatever is left of it in Turkey, we are simply doing our jobs. All it takes to be called a terrorist under Erdogan’s regime is speaking out against government corruption and abuses of power. Verbal attacks, smear campaigns by pro-government media and legal harassment soon follow.

In other words, Dumanli and his Zaman (and its English-language version, Today’s Zaman) were only doing their job speaking truth to power and taking a stance for free speech. The schism with Erdogan is about his reactions to the Gezi protests in 2013 and his government’s rampant corruption.

This is funny. And i don’t mean that Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism is funny, nor the state of free speech in Turkey. No, I think it’s funny to hear Dumanli – of all people – write this. Because, if you’d actually been reading his articles of the last couple of years, you’d have thought that the Dumanli writing in the Washington Post and the Dumanli writing for the Gülenist press all these years are not necessarily the same person. If you’d been reading the articles of Today’s Zaman as much as I’ve done during this period, you’d be excused for thinking that the Washington Post editors were in need of a doctor.

Now, I feel as bad about Dumanli’s arrest as I do of any crackdown on media, which in Turkey has in the past decade included hundreds of other journalists arrested, threatened and some even killed. But it’s hard to accept someone like Dumanli getting heralded as some kind of liberal free speech hero on the pages of the Washington Post.

Here’s why:

First, here’s a couple of Dumanli nuggets from old times passed (all in English and available for Washington Post editors to read if they’d have bothered to do so):

Attacking other media in Turkey:

“As the profession of journalism lies in tatters and rags” (Today’s Zaman, May 14 2011), In which, during the height of the Ergenekon trials, Dumanli implies that there is a link between detained journalists from the media outlet OdaTV and the mafia, and that they’re part of the “pro-coup media” preparing a “psychological atmosphere” for a coup.

Some people who call themselves journalists choose to use this profession as armor behind which to conduct psychological warfare. The documents and information gleaned from the Odatv probe help us see certain webs of relations with more clarity. This scandalous situation tends to infuriate some of our colleagues. Some of them who tended to give themselves a democratic or liberal posture cannot even control their rage and anger. But this is no time for such uncontrolled outbursts of furiousness. You will recall that there have always been claims about the relationship between the media and the mafia or about journalists working as spies or agents for secret organizations or about the close ties between journalists and junta members. Today we are going through a period in which all these claims can be clarified. So, no one should cry or moan or try to confuse things. It is high time we talk about what sorts of operations this center called Odatv — and there are many such centers — have undertaken.… some of those in this profession have associated themselves with the state, intelligence organizations, military juntas and anti-democratic structures. They performed their job in line with their orders. That is why the military was easily able to stage coups once every decade and dealt a severe blow to democracy. The pro-coup media outlets prepared the psychological atmosphere in the country before a coup and presented a military coop as an indispensable way out.

So the junta doesn’t have an arm in the media?” (Today’s Zaman, March 7, 2011), in which Dumanli gives his modified version of Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

 Just as it is wrong to declare someone guilty without due process, it is wrong to declare someone innocent without sufficient information. 

And then goes on:

When certain journalists were arrested during police operations last week, a significant portion of the media was in uproar. Using the concept of freedom of press people argued that journalists were being suppressed, that the Ergenekon investigation had gone overboard and that Turkey was turning into a police state. Do these people who make such harsh criticisms have any concrete information, document, or evidence in their hands? No.… if acts that cannot be considered as journalism activities are in question, then turning journalism into a shield cannot be allowed. Turkey has for a long time been subject to a psychological operation.….What I would like to say is that not every journalist in this country is actually a journalist. Not every journalist chases stories. To some, the difference between journalism and being an informant can readily be dismissed. This is why we don’t need to rush. There is no need to panic. The indictment will be finalized and, as necessitated by the norms of an open society, we will see everything in all its clarity. It is possible that those who are compromising their stance today will be embarrassed. The prime minister is right when he says, “Let the judiciary do its job.” In the end, after a certain time, everyone will be aware of the evidence the judiciary currently has against the arrested journalists. What if that awareness embarrasses those who rushed to make statements? It is not our job, as journalists, to say that this one is guilty and that one is innocent. There is only one concrete fact that we know: The media is a leg of junta movements and coup plots. Demanding that there be no investigation carried out into that leg, and being offended whenever there is an investigation into media circles, is tantamount to being afraid to face the truth. Just “let it be,” so the evidence can have its say.

“How Do the Media’s Genes Transform” (Today’s Zaman, May 22nd 2011), in which Dumanli talks about an “Ergenekon media”, plagued by “pro-coup thoughts” and “pro-coup genes” that need to be “removed”

Sadly, we have a media that deserves to be called the Ergenekon media. It is not possible to deny this considering everything that has happened. And sadly enough, the pro-coup thoughts are still alive in this country and part of the media works tirelessly towards the consolidation of this mindset. The Ergenekon case, Sledgehammer trials, investigations into unresolved murders, the Şemdinli raid, the Zirve massacre, the State Council attack and Hrant Dink’s murder … Consider these horrible incidents; you will notice the pro-junta actors relying on state power to create an environment of chaos as well as the media actors seeking to legitimize their actions with the hope to protect them from legal measures.What is happening is obvious. Unfortunately, there are a number of incidents and examples that would confirm this grave picture. Maybe instead of analyzing these incidents case by case, we have to focus on the purpose of pro-coup genes. Unless these genes are removed properly, the media will not be able to get rid of this illness.


On the state security apparatus in Turkey:

“The Kurds’ turn” (Today’s Zaman, December 20, 2009): A few days after the Kurdish party DTP is banned in Turkey, and in the middle of the tainted KCK trial, Dumanli takes the opportunity to write a rather condescending piece on the PKK, the DTP and the Kurds, while also defending state excesses against the Kurds

More developments have occurred in this country. The “unsolved” murder cases that the PKK exploited and the DTP harped on were investigated by the judiciary. Commissioned officers were detained, lime pits were excavated and suspects were confronted by eyewitnesses in court. There was no response from the DTP. Why? Because the topics that could be exploited were being taken away from them one by one. As for the Kurdish citizens in the middle, they couldn’t quite understand the sacrifice that was being made. Once they were afraid of the state; now they were feeling the compassionate hands of the state patting their back. But then this time the organization’s mask fell off, and its savage face became exposed.It is time for conscientious, rational, and prudent Kurds to get involved in the issue and start questioning the organization’s dark functions by displaying a civil and democratic reaction. This issue is too important to be left to the insanity of extremists. A vast majority of Turks and Kurds have good judgment. They know both the value of brotherhood and the tragedy of disintegration. The government has taken important steps, but the PKK is not making the slightest move. It is still turning to terror as an outdated organization. It is necessary for people to see this reality, to catch those who are blocking the issue red-handed and most importantly not fall into the trap of provocation. There is only one way to do this: putting forward free will by ruining the games of deceivers, fussers and ramblers and raising the democratic mind’s voice against every kind of violence. The segment of society that has remained the quietest until this point must assume a serious role; in other words, the Kurdish people must draw the line and take a stand against adventurers. The state has done and is doing what it needs to do. Now it is the Kurds’ turn, and the turn of their common sense, appreciation and sacrifice to come into play.

“Beware!” (Today’s Zaman, Feb 12, 2012): Did you know that the Turkish intelligence agency, MİT, created the Kurdistan’s Worker’s Party, the PKK? Well, that’s what Dumanli argued in 2012:

There is an important argument that has been around for many years and that has recently been covered in books: that MİT established the PKK. The argument goes on to say that MİT also administers the PKK. These allegations have never been addressed or investigated thus far. Maybe that has not been possible. However, a number of unresolved events — including the murder of Uğur Mumcu — were attributed to the link between the PKK and MİT. If the information, findings and documents, as well as confessions seized during the KCK investigation, could prove this intricate relationship, what should the judiciary do? Should it cover it up or should it take action to identify what really happened? Let us not kid ourselves. If an armed organization has been able to fight against the state for decades and its militants have never been eliminated, one of the reasons is the link between that organization and some operational individuals acting on behalf of the state. It does not matter whether they are police officers, military servicemen or intelligence collectors. No organization could survive in the face of state power unless these people extend their support. Terrorist organizations that have been eliminated should be analyzed from this perspective as well.


Defending Government Corruption in 2009

And it’s not just Dumanli, the Gülenist press wrongs extend far beyond its editors.

As told here and here, long before the December 2013 corruption case, media outlets in the Doğan Media Group broke the story of government corruption surrounding “the “Deniz Feneri” Islamic charity in Germany,… “the biggest charity corruption case in German history” in which “Doğan newspapers alleged that billions of dollars raised by the charity had somehow found their way into AKP coffers back in Turkey”.

The government subsequently levied a hefty tax fine on the Doğan Group. After this was criticized by an international press organization, WAN-IFRA, a group of pro-government newspapers objected to the critique that the government was muzzling the press. Among these were the Gülenist press.

Here’s Bülent Keneş in Today’s Zaman on December 2nd 2009 in “Where do WAN-IFRA and Doğan group stand vis-à-vis freedom of the press?“:

Had it adopted an impartial look of Turkey, it [the World Association of Newspapers] could have seen that what really threatens freedom of the press in Turkey are the military, the judiciary and influential groups that cooperate with them. I am sure [the Association] would then realize that the Doğan group’s newspapers and TV channels would lend unconditional support to all anti-democratic military interventions and that it has always served as the main medium for bloody psychological warfare practices devised to ensure the continuation of the military’s guardianship of democracy.

And here’s Yavuz Baydar, NYT contributor and current Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, in “Scandal at WAN-IFRA / WEF Congress in Hyderabad” from Decemeber 4th 2009.:

It became immediately obvious that the inclusion of Turkey in the group of five most restrictive countries (which were condemned for violating press freedom) as well as the almost exclusive focus on the tax evasion case against the Doğan Media Group was a result of ill-informed, superficial, biased and sloppy work done by the organization.For the record, I would like to share with the readers, what I, in despair, wrote to them, before I also left Hyderabad. It is as follows:“As I understand, the inclusion of the recent tax evasion case in the latest WAN- IFRA annual statement as a ‘major threat to press freedom’ caused, among the Turkish members [other than those affiliated with Doğan] of WAN-IFRA, widespread discontent and led to a joint, written protest. I, too, felt rather disturbed.

In other words, when the Gülenist press was supporting Erdogan’s government, government corruption was simply not as big a deal. It is now, when government corruption is a tool the Gülenists can use against Erdogan after their falling out.

And this is just touching the surface of what Dumanli has been writing over the years. His colleagues have also contributed in various ways, such as the examples of Uslu and Baydar’s conditioning their defense of press freedom on the journalists detained.

And it goes on…

Dumanli and the Gülenists press have engaged in a level of hypocrisy that, frankly, boggles the mind. For example, Here’s Emre Uslu lamenting the journalists’, charged in the Ergenekon trials, use of media, especially the international outlets, to explain their innocence rather than the courts… Which is, by the way, exactly what the Gülenists are doing today. And understandably, as Turkish courts do not deliver justice, merely hand out arbitrary versions dictated by state elites. And for a long time, Gülen movement members held highly influential in the state security courts, the very courts with the most power and where the repression has been strongest.

Then there’s the character assassinations, not just of the OdaTV trials, but also anyone critical of their way of thinking, such as a Today’s Zaman contributor’s comparison of well-known journalists Gareth Jenkins and Alex Christie-Miller to Anders Breivik, the repeated attacks on Dani Rodrik (sometimes in rather juvenile ways) to name a few.

Equally problematic is the resistance the Gülenist press has shown against abolishing the state security courts (see here, and here), widely acknowledged by human rights organizations as part of the core instruments of state repression in Turkey (see here). Their support for these instruments are not surprising given the degree to which their fellow members in the Gülen movement would come to occupy influential positions in these institutions.

And what would an outlay of the Gülenist press’ hypocritical stance on democracy and human rights be without a member of the Gülenist press also writing to try to defend the ten-percent threshold in national elections. Of course, that’s from 2010, back in the day when the Gülenists and Erdogan were still allied. Because who wants democracy when in control of powerful tools of political control like those in Turkey?

Heroes indeed.

Given the Gülenists press’ problematic track record of accepting repression when their associates held power in the state, they need to convince the public, especially the American one, that Turkey’s problems are A) the result Erdoğan and B) that they arrived mostly in 2013 or shortly before, just as the pendulum was swinging against them resulting in their decisive purge from the state elite apparatus as well as the ensuing economic and political stigmatization.

As I’ve touched on before, anything else, i.e. acknowledging the problems before 2013, and especially during the tainted trials of Balyoz, Ergenekon, and KCK, would leave them open to questioning of their role in the repression that accompanied these witch hunts. It would lead to the question why anyone should stand up for the freedoms of the Gülenists when they themselves didn’t stand up for their contemporaries?

But the answer to this question is simple: we should always stand up for individual freedoms and free speech, even for those who would not do the same for others. But the Gülenist media should also not be treated with greater dignity than they deserve.

Moreover, the degree to which the Gülenist media elites’ should be held accountable should not be resolved in Turkey’s courts. These are not, and were not, capable of handing out justice because of the institutions prevailing in the country. And journalism is not a crime. Even the decrepit and deceitful garbage coming out of the Gülen-affiliated press under Dumanli and his colleagues is not a crime.

Instead, holding the Gülenist media to account is best done in a simple and straightforward way: calling them out on their bullshit and not letting them peddle their bad talking points without a rebuttal.

Several mainstream international outlets have failed miserably at this, and not just the Washington Post, who has had a really bad winter in its commentary on Turkey. The New York Times regularly features contributors of the Gülenist press, for example, Andrew Finkel and Yavuz Baydar (past and current respectively). A testament to the NYT’s continuing inability to stay away from Gülenist talking points is Andrew Finkel’s recent op-ed, where he notes

“the Gulen movement’s real offense was to withdraw its support for the Erdogan government last year”… “because government corruption was spiraling out of control.”

It’s hard for a newspaper to publish high-quality commentary on Turkey when those it invites to do so are part of the problem. And I don’t mean the problem is the individual contributors, but the process of choosing contributors from a highly selective and, I’d argue, severely biased pool. And when mainstream international media acquiesce in letting these representatives, inlcuding Dumanli, peddle their talking points on op-ed pages of the likes of Washington Post and the New York Times, the Turkish media’s problems becomes the US media’s problems. The latter’s readers are the ones that suffer, as the media’s central role, to inform its readers on current events, fails.

The international media would do itself a great service of decreasing their reliance on Gülen-affiliated columnists and contributors, opening up the space to a broader pool. For starters, here’s a list of some of the journalists and members of the media who have suffered under state repression in Turkey.