Last weekend, unexpected news hit Turkey’s headlines: The top executives of Taraf, an ultra-liberal daily that has fearlessly bashed both the old Kemalist establishment and the new AKP government, resigned. Ahmet Altan, the editor-in-chief of the paper, along with Yasemin Çongar, the second to Altan in rank, announced their departure. Soon, they were also followed by Neşe Düzel, a senior correspondent, and Murat Belge, a senior columnist.
To see why this is more than just any ordinary job change in the Turkish media, we should take a closer look at Taraf. This paper was established only five years ago by Altan, Çongar and a bunch of idealist liberals and leftists with a self-declared mission: helping Turkey’s democratic transformation by relentlessly going after the powers that be. In those initial years, Taraf especially defied the Turkish military, with a bravado that shocked most Turks, who had seen this sinister institution as untouchable.
Taraf also became very instrumental in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases, which both put alleged coup plots on trial. Many of the documents that were used by the prosecutors in these cases were first printed in Taraf – before they were apparently “leaked” to the paper by the police.
During this initial period, which probably went on until 2011, Taraf was very popular among pro-AKP conservatives as well. But as the military’s power waned, and the AKP government consolidated itself, Taraf’s arrows turned toward the “new establishment.” Especially Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan became the paper’s new target, as its headlines and editorials began to bash him every day as the new threat to freedom.
If you ask me, I think Taraf was basically right in its stances, but also often too emotional, clumsy and subjective. In the “coup cases,” Taraf overlooked the excesses of the prosecution, such as prolonged arrests of too many suspects, and also dismissed some the legitimate suspicions about the military documents that it published. With regards to the AKP, Taraf again was too heated in my view, as not only the authoritarian stances of the AKP but also its legitimate moral conservatism became the paper’s target. (No wonder even some Taraf writers, such as Yıldıray Oğur, disagreed with Altan on the latter’s passionate anti-AKP stance.)
All in all, however, Taraf has certainly been an important contribution to Turkish democracy. Its opinion pages broke many taboos, ranging from Atatürk’s historical reality to the true fate of Ottoman Armenians. Moreover, in its five-year-long short history, it proved to be an independent paper that bowed to no one.
Therefore, the departure of Altan and the other leading names of the paper is concerning. The announced reason is that the paper is in a dire economic situation, and that Altan and others have become “tired and frustrated.” In his farewell column, Altan wrote that he is going back to his “real job,” which is writing novels. We will see what the others will do, and what Taraf will do without them, in the months to come.
Nevertheless, many people inevitably suspect that pressure from the AKP government might have led the owner of Taraf, Başar Aslan, to ask for the withdrawal of his most anti-AKP pens. I have no evidence to support or dismiss this claim, but I am sure that it will be credible for many. And I am also sure that the earthquake in Taraf will be yet another bad sign for the future of independent journalism in Turkey.