All the News That’s Fit to Print*
One of my roommates is quite the social animal. It doesn’t bother me, as she somehow manages to party at an acceptable volume, but every other day my apartment teems with her friends, relatives and miscellaneous partners-in-crime. Sometimes I join the festivities, sometimes I don’t and I wake up the next morning to clear away the bottles of Efes and Bomonti lying around the floor and figure the lumps snoring on my couch will cease to be an issue by the time I return from class (and may it remain so, roomie).
But some lumps are more interesting than others. One morning I entered the living room and discovered one not-so-peacefully slumbering on a love seat too small for anyone to comfortably pass out on, but she made it work. I didn’t think too much about why she appeared far more professional than my roommate’s usual entourage, as makeup has a miraculous maturing effect on Turkish women, who balance this out with an equally remarkable ability to freeze in time around their nineteenth birthday up until their fortieth. But when upon my entrance she slowly emerged from under covers in only slightly wrinkled business attire I realized she wasn’t the type to simply yawn, look at her watch, scream and rush to class with nothing more than a few bites of simit (a Turkish bagel) to sustain them for the next few hours.
But this woman, who I’ll call Fatma so I don’t have to input any of those special dots and diphthongs that make the Turkish alphabet the best in the world (if you’re not using a QWERTY keyboard), merely shrugged at the time. She was a career girl who made her own hours, you see. “And where’s that?” I asked, a variation of “What are you studying” or “What courses are you taking” my boilerplate getting-to-know-you questions that keep both of us from sitting in an uncomfortable silence until someone suddenly needs to send a text message. But sometimes people have fascinating answers. “I’m a journalist,” she answered.
“And you’re not in jail! Congratulations!” Fatma gave herself a little triumphant fist pump. “For who?”
Turns out she worked for the foreign affairs section at one of the largest anti-government publications in the country. “You work for them?” I asked. “So, do you take a flask to work or do you just keep the bottle at the office?”
Journalists have been a persecuted class in Turkey for over a century and a half. Seemingly any crisis can be and will be used as an excuse to close down newspapers and arrest journalists, and regardless of the ruling party’s ideology the Press is often crushed by the government’s boot. Today, Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other nation on earth, and the government is not unwilling to use laws punishing those who “insult Turkishness” to censor the press.
Anti-government media survives only because they control two-thirds of the market and are too big to completely suppress. However, while they do routinely criticize the policies of the government and AKP, they are mindful that going too far may well send their journalists aboard the Midnight Express. “We have to censor ourselves,” Fatma told me. “The editor doesn’t have to do it, we do. We usually know if we’re saying something that could get us in trouble, and we change what we write so that it sounds more acceptable.” Indeed, at her behest this post must be censored. I can’t tell you her real name or the paper she works for. It’s standard practice for journalists to obscure details in order to protect their sources. In Turkey, I have to protect the journalist.
That said, self-censorship doesn’t always ward off trouble. Fatma recently wrote an article about a Palestinian terrorist attack against Israel which she blandly titled “Israelis Attacked in Palestinian Bombing” or something similar. One has to keep in mind that the recent conflict in Gaza has caused anti-Israeli sentiment in the country to skyrocket. There is no anti-Jewish sentiment in Istanbul that I have seen, but many if not most Turks are completely sympathetic to the plight of Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire and disgusted with what they view as Israeli brutality. To illustrate my point, I’ve met a pretty Turkish girl on campus who has always been very sweet and helpful every time we’ve spoken, and her Twitter feed is likewise a string of whimsical light-heartedness broken only by one post about Israel: “May the blood on their hands come back to them!”
For daring to be objective and acknowledging that the Bad Guys can also be victimized, both Fatma’s work and her newspaper were personally condemned by Erdoğan in a speech, and she spent the next few days certain that she was to be fired, though fortunately the axe never fell. “You can’t say anything negative about Hamas,” she told me matter-of-factly, conveying to me how many Turks refuse to see this organization, formally recognized as a terror group in the United States, as anything but a group of virtuous freedom fighters. She in fact seemed quite surprised when I told her that any statement that sounded remotely sympathetic toward Hamas would be met with almost universal condemnation within the U.S.
Fatma has been lucky not to have caught more flak than she has, mostly because she works for the Foreign Affairs section, which is not as heavily scrutinized as sections which deal with controversies within Turkey itself. She’s had a few colleagues who were not so fortunate. One friend of hers was fired for writing an article about a convoy of trucks from the National Intelligence Organization (Turkish CIA) loaded with weapons stopped at the Syrian border, likely en route to supply ISIS against Assad. Erdoğan sees the Syrian dictator as just another obstacle to restoring Turkish hegemony in the Middle East, or so Fatma believes. Her friend’s sacking is quite ironic, considering that Turkey has just recently passed legislation authorizing force against ISIS. By the way, if you’re interested in this subject, I’ve provided an addendum discussing Turkey’s perspective and interests in Iraq and Syria at the end of this post.
Fired for doing his job too well, Fatma’s friend helped establish an independent news website, Gri Hat (Gray Line), where it along with another dissident publication Karşı Gazetesi (literally, “Opposing Newspaper”) became infamous for publishing reports on the AKP corruption scandals of late 2013 which involved a number of Erdoğan’s relatives, including his sons. Gri Hat didn’t get away with that one either-its site along with Karşı Gazetesi was blocked by the government last Thursday, joining the thousands of websites that have fallen under the Turkish banhammer in the last few years.
Fatma told me about a couple other dissident publications. There is OdaTV, considered by the Committee to Protect Journalists to be an “ultranationalist website harshly critical of the government”. And what were the consequences of such harsh criticism? In 2011 the government raided their office and arrested a number of their journalists, accusing them of inciting violence and being linked to the terrorist organization “Ergenekon”, a sinister cabal of ultranationalist terrorists and assassins so moustache-twirlingly vile as to be scarcely believable. This is not without good reason, for Ergenekon is scarcely believable and is almost certainly the concoction of government witch hunters.
Is it possible to publish the truth in Turkey? Yes, but. Fatma also told me about Taraf (“Side”), a liberal newspaper that routinely prints what it wants how it wants to and rarely if ever resorts to self-censorship. It merely has to resort to a tiny circulation and tinier advertising revenues, as no one wants to be associated with such a controversial publication. However, Taraf’s owner is like a Turkish Citizen Kane and laughs off his “considerable” losses, admirably insisting that his paper’s mission is more important than profits. But I don’t know if Fatma knew whether even at this safe haven journalists have been given death threats and have been forced to hire bodyguards.
Fatma and I talked for a little longer about life in our respective countries, and then I had to get going. But before I left, she told me that “We have to censor ourselves, but we’re not afraid of the government. We do what we have to do, but we still print the truth when it comes out.”
Erdoğan’s shift in attitude toward ISIS is not for conscientious reasons. Indeed, it is a brilliant move from a realpolitik perspective. There has been no reconciliation between Erdoğan and Assad, despite their former friendly relations prior to the civil war (“They went on vacation together!” Fatma exclaimed). It seems Erdoğan believes that it best suits Turkey’s interests to go after both sides.
The reasons why many in the country reluctantly or not-so-reluctantly support ISIS aren’t exactly what one may expect. Yes, there are some radical Islamists who support ISIS at face value, but I believe this number is quite small, numbering no more than a few thousand. People I’ve talked to about this subject have told me that the main supporters of ISIS in Turkey are actually Neo-Ottomanists and right-wing nationalists who view Kurdish separatism rather than radical Islam as the greatest threat to Turkish sovereignty and empowerment. In fact, there is speculation that Erdoğan’s change of heart is due to the fact that the Kurds are successfully resisting ISIS aggression and will soon be able to declare independence, which will further encourage Kurdish separatism within Turkey’s own borders.
I read Sarah McPhee’s blog entry on her trip to Sochi, not least because I briefly entertained the thought of signing up for that trip and beelining to Istanbul immediately after, because things like sleep and R&R are for the weak. Anyway, I was quite surprised to see her receive such a cold reception. Okay, I’m not surprised that she caught a lot of static from the bureaucrats, as they suck here too, nor was I shocked to hear that people shamelessly cut her in line. I guess in this hemisphere you really got to fight for your position.
However, I was surprised to read about her witnessing so much racism and anti-American sentiment in a single day. It’s no secret that Turkish-American relations could be improved (though they are better than our relations with Russia) and I was told before my departure that while Turks generally like Americans, I may have to listen to some criticism of our government. So far, very little of that has happened. I’ve seen some leaflets on campus protesting American imperialism, and a couple loose comments about the dark side of the American Way, the most notable being a rather prominent graffito outside campus that translates to something like “Murdering States of America F— off out of the Middle East!” but for the most part, it’s my experience that either Turks are too polite to criticize America in front of an American, or they really do hold generally positive attitudes toward us.
Half of us, anyway. American women, however, are often subject to unwelcome attention from amorous Turkish men. I’ve had to literally pull a couple out of these situations myself. Consensus is that many Turks are enormously attracted to Western exoticness and that some are led on by the portrayal of women American media in the mainstream and the, ahem, underground as sexpot bimbos. This view is not exclusively held by Turkish men. A couple Turkish girls I’ve met have been openly derisive of American girls as “stupid”, often basing their judgment not on real people but movie characters.
Racism does exist in Turkey, but our racial problems are not theirs, and vice versa. While I’ve heard of anti-black discrimination in Russia, it does not exist in Turkey, despite having also owned Sub-Saharan Africans as slaves as late as the mid 19th century. There are actually quite a few West African immigrants in Istanbul, and are treated with the same regard as many other immigrant group, and probably better than the Kurdish, Syrian or Romani communities. Though the movies and rap videos have again caused Turks to ask me if African-Americans really are as dangerous as they’re portrayed, in Istanbul a black man or woman is almost never remarked on, and outside it are subject to little more than a few stares of surprise.