After 495 days in pre-trial detention on a trumped-up charge of terrorism, Murat Sabuncu was allowed to return to his desk as editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet in March 2018. In a country where around 90 percent of the media is slavishly pro-government, Cumhuriyet — Turkey’s oldest and arguably its most prestigious newspaper — had established a reputation for independence and as a standard-bearer for journalistic reporting.
His reinstatement lasted a mere six months. A ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals on 7 September resulted in the dismissal of several members of staff, including Sabuncu. A new board was appointed and with it came a shift in editorial policy. Those who took control of the paper were none other than the people who testified against Cumhuriyet staff in the first place. Around 30 journalists and writers — some of whom had also been in jail — resigned in protest.
Cumhuriyet had been split between competing factions for years: a group of left-wing nationalists, who saw themselves as defenders of the Atatürkist doctrine, and another group consisting of journalists and writers ranging from social democrats to socialists who are much more critical of the country’s official ideology, particularly on the Kurdish issue. That feud has only escalated in recent years as Turkey has become increasingly polarised, not just between religious and secular, but also between nationalists, including within the Islamic community, and those who demand a confrontation with the dark pages of the country’s history.
A key question is whether the latest change in management is a natural consequence of the divide or part of the government’s continued efforts to silence a powerful oppositional voice – especially at a time when the judiciary’s independence is routinely up for debate.
Ahmet Şık, a prominent and outspoken journalist, recently turned MP for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has no doubts about the answer. “Those who are claiming to have liberated Cumhuriyet are the same ones who collaborated with people who arrested us, threw us in prison by serving as false witnesses,” Şık tweeted. “They are no better than those who have looted this country.”
Şık spent time in pre-trial detention and was released in March 2018 along with Sabuncu. Both men were eventually sentenced on 25 April to seven-and-a-half years in prison on terror-related charges but were freed pending appeal.
Godsend for the government
Cumhuriyet is a unique example in Turkey. While most media organisations in the country are run by a corporation, it is administrated by a non-profit organisation called the Cumhuriyet Foundation. The chairman of the new board is Alev Coşkun, a former politician who has been a board member since the early 1990s. A lot of Şık’s anger is directed towards Coşkun, who was chairman prior to the board election held in 2013. When Coşkun lost, he sued his own newspaper. After a four-year-long legal spat, the board was invalidated by the Supreme Courts of Appeals. In his capacity of the acting chairman, Coşkun convened a new board election, which he eventually won over Akın Atalay, with the support of other discontented ex-board members. Atalay, a lawyer by profession, was the latest defendant released from pre-trial detention in the Cumhuriyet case. He was also given the longest sentence of eight years, one month and 15 days for “aiding a terrorist organisation without being a member”.
Coşkun’s role in the case against Cumhuriyet has been controversial. “He is the person responsible for the investigation,” says Ergin Cinmen, one of the lawyers who represented Cumhuriyet’s staff during the trial. “The trial was launched after Coşkun testified to the prosecutor. Coşkun was also heard during the trial as the prosecutor’s witness and repeated his accusations.”
The nature of Coşkun’s allegations proved to be a godsend for the government, according to Banu Güven, a journalist who closely followed the trial. “The arguments used against the former board in their dispute contain precisely the accusations the government desired,” she says.
The background of the case goes back to 2008 when a police operation named Ergenekon was launched against military officers accused of plotting a coup and their alleged media connections. Cumhuriyet’s Ankara office was searched and veteran Ankara bureau chief Mustafa Balbay arrested along with the revered editorialist İlhan Selçuk. The latter, who was 73 years old at the time, was released two days later, but Balbay remained in pre-trial prison for almost five years. The investigations were allegedly led by prosecutors and police officers linked to the movement around the cleric Fethullah Gülen, then an ally of the government.
In 2013 this narrative was turned upside down. After one of the prosecutors who had overseen Ergenekon instigated probes against ministers and pro-government businessmen, the split between the ruling party and the Gülen movement reached a point of no return. Gülen was now seen as the arch nemesis of the government and would be accused of orchestrating the failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016. Ergenekon convicts, including Balbay and former chief-of-staff İlker Başbuğ, were set free. Verdicts against them were quashed by the Supreme Court of Appeals. To top it all, the entire Ergenekon plot to overthrow the government came to be regarded as a fiction invented by Gülen organisation members. Liberals, guilty in the eyes of staunch secularists for turning a blind eye to the Islamic roots of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), were now blamed by the government for being tools of the Gülen movement.
In the middle of all this, Coşkun lost his election to the board. The paper changed under his successor Atalay, particularly following the appointment of Can Dündar as the new editor-in-chief in 2015. Cumhuriyet’s editorial policy became a less “old school”. It was more outspoken on the Kurdish issue at a time when the government was whipping up tensions around the conflict with renewed and vicious military operations in the southeast. The newspaper began unequivocally distancing itself from the political establishment. In May 2015 Cumhuriyet ran pictures that allegedly showed weapons sent to Jihadi groups in Syria on trucks belonging to the Turkish intelligence agency. This, as far as the government was concerned, was the last straw. Accused of “treason” by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a live broadcast, Dündar was arrested and charged with espionage. His editorial policy was declared the root of all evil.
“What makes the trial against Cumhuriyet unique is that the case is entirely based on criminal charges laid out against an editorial policy,” says Cinmen. “This is something unprecedented in the world.”
“Journalism was on trial,” says Güven. “The objective was to eradicate a pluralist editorial policy backing freedoms and peace.” She stresses that while the new board members accused their predecessors of being “liberals who had supported Erdogan against the military tutelage,” they were the ones who collaborated with the government in laying the groundwork for the trial.
A “lost struggle” for editorial independence
When Coşkun testified to the prosecutor days after the raid on Cumhuriyet’s offices on 31 October 2016, he was seen carrying an edition of Cumhuriyet which featured a report on Gülen on its front page. It also emerged that Coşkun had written an anonymous letter to the president’s office. In the letter, Coşkun accused his successor of having “organic ties” with both the Gülen organisation and the pro-Kurdish HDP. His allegations echoed Balbay’s statement after he had stopped writing for Cumhuriyet a few months before. “Everything from being [pro-Gülen] to pro-Kurdish is allowed at Cumhuriyet,” Balbay tweeted.
Both Coşkun and Balbay were witnesses for the prosecution, causing a huge uproar in the court. During Coşkun’s court statements when he deplored the presence of Turhan Günay, Cumhuriyet’s literary editor who had spent nine months in prison despite his later acquittal. “Why is Günay even here in this trial?” Coşkun asked. Günay’s voice interrupted his statement: “Thanks to you, sir.”
If Coşkun’s role has rubbed salt in the defendants’ wounds during the case, Cinmen argues that the government was determined to silence Cumhuriyet no matter what. “The decision had been made,” he says. “Coşkun and his letter were merely instrumentalised.”
Academic Ceren Sözeri, one of Turkey’s most prominent media experts, also emphasises that the newspaper won’t adopt a pro-government policy just because Coşkun was re-elected as chairman. Yet the new board may also have to pay its dues to the government, Sözeri warns. “If the operation against Cumhuriyet is usually thought as two separate trials (the management case and the criminal case), it was essentially a struggle for editorial independence. I believe that this struggle was lost.”
Güven believes that the change in management was the result of direct government intervention. If there is one subject the old board and the government agreed on, Güven argues, it was the Kurdish issue. A shift of the newspaper’s tone on the Kurdish issue was to become decisive. “Though there are still opposition writers in Cumhuriyet, the newspaper is now more acceptable in the government’s eyes.”
After taking over the newspaper, the new board solemnly announced in a front-page editorial that Atatürk and his principles “had returned to the newspaper”. “Harsh accusations against the previous editorial policy and statements in the form of martial law declarations show that [the board’s] concerns go beyond merely reporting,” says Sözeri. She stresses that the way the newspaper changed hands played a “decisive role” for those journalists and writers who resigned. “It is very hard, even impossible doing real journalism on government’s terms,” she says.
In a country where shifts in the editorial policies of newspapers are only considered natural after changes in management, Sözeri warns that the handover in Cumhuriyet could be a tragic turning point. “Protecting editorial independence is key to preventing such shifts,” she says. “This is only possible through association and solidarity.”
Without that solidarity, an important press freedom case degenerated into one in which both journalists’ freedom and the very future of their newspaper were at stake.