Turkish media: coup watchdog or tool of the powerful?

The July coup attempt in Turkey brought up memories of the country’s long history with military uprisings and the related role that coup plots—real, alleged, and imagined—play in the country’s everyday politics. Today’s Turkish demand that the U.S. detain Fethullah Gulen, a Sunni Muslim cleric and intellectual, dovetails with this history. Not just because the government of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames Gulen for the coup. But because media outlets associated with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and, perhaps, Gluen’s followers made an alliance of expediency and embarked on a well-publicized campaign against the Turkish military.

As Bilge Yesil explains in Media in New Turkey, the sudden appearance of a new newspaper play a prominent and perhaps not coincidental role in the controversy.

Taraf presented itself as a new voice in Turkey’s media field, one that it said was currently being overpopulated by pro-establishment, pro-military newspapers. Adopting an antimilitary discourse, Taraf began to publish internal military memos that would detail coup plans and other schemes being used by the military to discredit the AKP. In a 2008 front-page story, Taraf published the General Staff’s “action plan,” which ostensibly aimed to “align Turkish public opinion with the military [perspective]” and to “make the high judiciary, media, universities, intellectuals and artists act in concert with the military.” The story rocked AKP-military relations, already strained by earlier political developments. Undeterred, Taraf continued to publish one story after another that disclosed alleged “military plans to finish off the AKP and the Gulen community, and fight Islamic reactionism.” In a front-page story in January 2010, Taraf revealed the “Sledgehammer coup scheme” based on leaked documents that reporter Mehmet Baransu received in a suitcase.

Despite the suspicions concerning these allegations and the authenticity of the documents, pro-AKP circles ardently supported Taraf’s coverage, arguing that the paper served as part of the civilian resistance against the military tutelage and was therefore a significant actor in the democratization process. Yet there were also allegations that Taraf had been deliberately launched by the AKP- Gulen alliance with the intention of weakening the military. Former chief of staff Yasar Buyukanit insinuated that Taraf was being financed by the Gulen community, and there were also widespread rumors that the classified military documents and coup plans were being leaked to Taraf reporters by Gulen sympathizers within the police department. The fact that Taraf had never published anything critical of the Gulen community itself and that some of its columnists were prominent Gulenists seemed to confirm these claims.

In response to these allegations, Alper Gormus, editor of the defunct Nokta magazine who had now joined Taraf, would say that the paper’s “specific brand of journalism was exposing state secrets and bringing an end to the silent pact between the media and the military which had been making it impossible for certain stories to be published.” Taraf’s publisher, Basar Arslan, would deny financial connections with the Gulen community and say that his paper was “on the side of honesty and transparency against coups and gangs. We unveil illegal, dark activities. We are not a pro-AKP paper. When necessary we criticize the AKP as well.”