Saturday, April 9, 2011

Inconvenient Truths

The recent firing by the Today's Zaman newspaper of one of its top columnists, Andrew Finkel, for doing his job -- which is to write smart, questioning pieces that push forward the conversation on important and difficult issues -- should be cause for great concern for anyone who cares about the development of an independent and democratic press in Turkey.

Finkel is one of the smartest observers of Turkish politics, reporting on Turkey long enough to have an insider's deep understanding of what makes the country tick, while at the same time maintaining his outsider's critical distance. It's a combination that provided for frequently memorable and essential columns during his his three-year stint at Today's Zaman -- and which also got him into trouble before. In 1999, Finkel was charged with "insulting state institutions" after writing about some inconvenient truths regarding the Turkish military, which then led to his being fired by his employer, the Sabah newspaper, at the insistence of the country's National Security Council (MGK) .

Although the military wasn't involved this time around, it's clear that Finkel again got canned for writing (or trying to write) about another inconvenient truth. Today's Zaman is supported by the Fethullah Gulen movement, which is currently in the middle of another press-related controversy in Turkey, having to do with the arrest of a journalist who was preparing to publish a book that accuses the movement of having infiltrated the country's security forces. Following the arrest of the journalist, Ahmet Sik, on charges that his book is connected to the Ergenekon coup plot, prosecutors went on an aggressive campaign to confiscate any unpublished versions of the book and even indicated it would be a crime for individuals to be in possession of the manuscript.

Finkel wrote a column in response to these developments, but Today's Zaman refused to run it and then let the columnist go. In the column, which was printed instead in yesterday's Hurriyet Daily News, Finkel takes his (now former) employer and the Gulen movement to task for their response to recent events. From his column:
It was a bit over three years ago that I was recruited to write this column for this newspaper (Today’s Zaman). I remember the conversation well. The editor-in-chief anticipated that I might be hesitant to associate myself with a press group whose prejudices and principles might not always coincide with my own. He explained what I knew already, that the Zaman Group supported and was supported by the Fetullah Gülen Community and that I would have to take that on board. However, he explained the paper's mission was to fight for the democratization of Turkish society – that Turkey was no longer a country which should be ruled by military fiat. He also impressed upon me that he was committed to liberal values and to free discussion. And then, of course, he flattered me by saying that mine was a voice which the target audience of Today’s Zaman would want to hear. What helped me to make up my mind was the presence of columnists whose reputations I respected and whose standard of integrity had got them into trouble in other “corners” of the Turkish media....

....I have already expressed my concern that the fight against anti-democratic forces in Turkey has resorted to self-defeating anti-democratic methods. This in turn has led to a polarization in Turkey. If your side loses power then the natural fear is that they will use your methods against you. In case this sounds like I am speaking in riddles, I am referring to the aggressive prosecution of people who write books. These may be bad books, they may be books which are written with ulterior motives, they may be books which contain assertions which are not true. But at the end of the day, they are books – and there are libel courts – not criminal courts – designed to protect individuals from malicious falsehood. In short, writing a book offensive to the Gülen community is not a crime.

It may be in bad taste, it might be off beam. It might every bit as nonsensical as the conspiracy theories that fill the shelves of Turkish book stores. But it might not. And until we actually read it we cannot know. More to the point, we can only question the motives of those who don’t want us to read it. It blackens the names of the censors, increases the credibility of a book which no one has even read. It’s also extremely foolish because in an age of Internet, you can’t actually stop people from whispering your backs. The point about the ostrich with its head in the sand is that it only fools itself.

However, I write this in the interests of defending the good name of this newspaper, with whom I have been associated since the first copy appeared on the stands. Having started the dialogue, it cannot stop.
(The full column can be found here. And some thoughts from Jenny White here.)

Finkel's firing strikes me as a very bad omen for which direction the political discussion in Turkey may be heading and for the health of the Turkish press. It's also a troubling development for Today's Zaman (and its Turkish-language sister paper, Zaman), which has become an increasingly blunt instrument in recent months, frequently resorting to the the same questionable journalistic tactics that it had long criticized its rivals for using. As one of two English-language papers in Turkey and because many of its writers represent a Gulen perspective, the newspaper remains a valuable resource and an important read. But after Finkel's firing, it is a much diminished publication. Finkel in many ways embodied Today's Zaman's mandate, and was then fired for fulfilling that mandate. The question, then, is: has the paper's mandate changed?

"I do not doubt that the current Turkish government, like those that preceded it, uses both carrot and baseball bat to get the media on its side," Finkel wrote in a September, 2009 column on press issues that seems particularly relevant today. "Yet even were the elected government to value a free and vital press (and there are days when this appears to be the case), the question remains whether the press itself is prepared for the role."

[UPDATE -- Today's Zaman editor-in-chief Bulent Kenes has penned a column explaining why his paper let Finkel go. While Finkel was one of the first journalists that he thought about hiring when he launched the paper, Kenes says that something (or, as he sees it, someone) has now "changed."

"So what is it that has changed?" he writes. "What has changed is that some of our writers have come under the influence of the strong and dark propaganda that is at play and have started to stagger. Unfortunately I feel the same way about Finkel, who I know does not have ill intentions in any way."

That certainly seems to clear things up, doesn't it?]

No comments: