A Tradition Still Alive in the Turkish Press

by Ayse Gunaysu

Ayse Gunaysu is a human rights advocate. She has been a member of the Committee Against Racism and Discrimination of the Human Rights Association of Turkey (Istanbul branch) since 1995.

by Ayse Gunaysu It’s not the first time that a mainstream newspaper in Turkey features a highly provocative front page headline making an unfounded accusation that would obviously incite public hatred and animosity towards the “other.”

by Ayse Gunaysu

Ayse Gunaysu is a human rights advocate. She has been a member of the Committee Against Racism and Discrimination of the Human Rights Association of Turkey (Istanbul branch) since 1995.

by Ayse Gunaysu It’s not the first time that a mainstream newspaper in Turkey features a highly provocative front page headline making an unfounded accusation that would obviously incite public hatred and animosity towards the “other.”

I’m talking about Hurriyet, one of the biggest circulation newspapers in Turkey. Its front page headline on Aug. 3 named the PKK—the outlawed Kurdish armed organization—as the perpetrator of the July 28 bombing in Istanbul that killed 17 people. The news item reported in detail how one of the nine suspects detained—the “bomber”—entered Turkey illegally and how he watched, in cold blood, people dye in the explosion.

What the readers of Hurriyet—whose logo reads “Turkey belongs to Turks”—couldn’t learn from their newspaper was that, after a thorough police and then public prosecutor’s interrogation, the court had detained the suspects not on charges related to the July 28 bombing but because they were members of an outlawed organisation. The court ruling for the arrest of the suspects had made no mention of the bombing at all. This was because there was practically no evidence to accuse any of the nine persons taken in custody of being the bomber or being linked in any way with the bombing. The daily Taraf, interviewing the family and the employer of the suspect, reported in its Aug. 5 issue that the alleged bomber did not enter Turkey illegally, but was, in fact, a textile worker working uninterruptedly in the same factory for the past seven years  and living with his family.

 

On the same page, next to this news item, Ahmet Altan, son of the legendary Labour Party member of the Turkish parliament in the 1960’s, starts his column by saying that the fundamental aim of justice is not to catch a criminal but to protect the innocent. Justice, he continues, catches and punishes the criminal for the sake of protecting the innocent. And the biggest fear of justice is to punish an innocent. With his usual forceful style, he uses “is” instead of “should be,” just to underline that using the format “should be” is not enough in formulating such a vital principle and that this should be an axiom, a categorical, rather than a conditional rule.

 

However, despite the fact that the court ruling is open to all, the Minister of Interior and other government spokespersons declared the suspect as the bomber, without making any reference to Taraf’s counter-arguments.

 

Several newspapers, including Taraf and Radikal, reported that the PKK had disowned the bombing and condemned it. The group’s spokesperson had clearly stated that the bombing had nothing to do with the “Kurdish liberation movement,” and that they were against the killing of civilians and believed this looked like one of the secret operations staged many times in the past.

 

Hurriyet’s headline and the provocative report supporting the Minister’s statement is not just an example of poor reporting practice. This is a country where the ongoing armed clashes for the past 30 years has triggered, every now and then, mass aggressions on Kurdish immigrants trying to make a living in the cities far away from their war-stricken home villages. Several times in the outskirts of big cities, Kurdish laborers working at terribly low wages without any social security have been the target of lynch attempts following rumors that they were linked with the PKK. The buildings of the DTP, the Kurdish party represented in parliament with 17 deputies, have at times been attacked by ultra-nationalists, and several years ago a bus carrying DTP members was destroyed by stone-throwing mobs yelling anti-Kurdish slogans in Gebze, a district of Istanbul, leaving dozens of people injured. More recently, a conference hall where the DTP held a meeting was blockaded for hours by thousands of people, with police doing nothing about it, and a DTP member dying of a heart attack in the process. In other words, Hurriyet knew very well that such an accusation, proven to be unfounded by the court ruling, carried the potential of triggering a new surge of anti-Kurdish sentiment among ultra-nationalists.

 

But, yes, this is not the first time. For decades, semi-official Turkish newspapers provoked hatred towards the “enemies of the nation”—sometimes the “communists,” many times the “disloyal minorities,” and frequently the “Kurdish separatists.” Throughout many tragic events in the history of Turkey, not to mention the minor ones, headlines in newspapers have served as a catalyst in stirring frantic masses to action.

 

Turkish readers were introduced to the history press’s role in various incidents of ethnic and religious mass aggression towards non-Muslims in Rifat Bali’s book Cumhuriyet Yillarinda Turkiye Yahudileri: Bir Turklestirme Seruveni, roughly translated to Jews of Turkey in the Republican Period: A Story of Turkification (Iletisim, 1999).

 

I’m not even talking about the ultra-nationalist and ultra-Islamist newspapers’ routine hate speech here, but the practice of one of the biggest dailies in Turkey. The routine hate speech in extremist publications includes open insults aimed at Armenians, Jews, and Kurds and personal attacks on religious leaders of minorities. But while there are laws protecting Turkishness from being insulted, there are none that protect non-Turks from insult in Turkey.

 

These are the days when, for the first time in this country’s history, a legal case is under way against figures who were pointed out by human rights advocates for years as having dark ties with the “special war machine” within the state, what is known in Turkey as the “deep state.” These are the times when the DTP, the independent Istanbul deputy Ufuk Uras, and various other opposition circles are calling for a deeper investigation that would pave the way for some kind of partial catharsis and a much better democracy, rather than a superficial washing of the hands of the most visible criminals already known very well by some. In the midst of such unpredictability, some people—like the editors of Hurriyet—further blur the public’s perception by means of unfounded accusations against the nation’s hate figures such as the PKK and the Kurds. After all, inciting hatred and animosity is the best, most efficient and most sustainable means of manipulation.

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