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Turkey opposition daily Cumhuriyet shaken by internal strife

Journalists from the Turkish opposition daily have been targeted by authorities [Getty]

Date of publication: 19 September, 2018

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Fears about the stability of one of the very few dailies in Turkey still capable of criticising the government have arisen as Cumhuriyet continues to lose staff members.
A simmering conflict inside Turkey's leading independent newspaper, which has been fiercely critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and seen several of its staff prosecuted and jailed, has resulted in wholesale changes at board level earlier this month.

Turkish opposition daily Cumhuriyet, which has seen a longstanding row between the liberal and nationalist flanks, has lost nearly 30 journalists - including several veterans -  who resigned from the nearly century-old paper, raising fears about the stability of one of the very few dailies in Turkey that still criticises the government.

"Erdogan must be very pleased with what has happened at Cumhuriyet," said 77-year-old writer Aydin Engin, who resigned after more than 15 years of contributions.

"Cumhuriyet was a thorn in his side. That thorn has now lost its sharpness," he told AFP.

On 7 September, the paper's nationalists - who see themselves as the inheritors of the legacy of Turkey's secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - managed to oust a more liberal faction from the board of directors.

Critics denounced the move, which triggered a flood of resignations, as a management coup.

Celebrated names like veteran journalist Kadri Gursel and cartoonist Musa Kart - both of whom spent months in jail in a hugely controversial trial on terror propaganda charges - have now left the paper.

"Since the 1980s, there have been divisions between the more nationalist, secular group and those more liberal," said Turkish intellectual Ahmet Insel, who stopped writing a column for the paper which he had penned since 2015.

The management changes mark "the failure of an attempt to create an open newspaper, not sectarian", he told AFP.

Even during the terror propaganda trial - which resulted in the conviction of 14 of its staff earlier this year - the two camps had been at loggerheads.

For the proponents of the traditional Kemalist line of Cumhuriyet, the editorial changes of the last few years which brought in more pro-European and more pro-Kurdish voices were a heresy.

"They brought in columnists into Cumhuriyet... who had nothing to do with republican and secular ideas," said Mine Kirikkanat, a new member of the editorial board.

The ideological battle for the heart of the daily was exposed when 17 of its staff went on trial last year on "terror" charges.

Called by the prosecution to testify, Alev Coskun - a former board member at the time who is now the foundation's new chairman - vehemently criticised Cumhuriyet's editorial line after 2013.

'Inestimable loss'

Members of the ousted team have accused the authorities of a "palace revolution" supported by a pro-Erdogan judiciary aimed at ushering in changes at the newspaper.

The new appointments were made after the court of cassation, Turkey's top appeals court, ruled there were "irregularities" during 2013 elections for the foundation.

But the new board denies any collusion with the government to take over the daily.

These allegations are "disgusting," said Sukran Soner, a new board member and celebrated journalist at Cumhuriyet, where she made her debut in 1966.

"We will continue to do uncompromising journalism," she told AFP, saying she would be "the first to leave" if the newspaper turned pro-Erdogan.

In a sign that the war between the two sides was far from over, the new management accused the previous team of terminating some employees' contracts with deliberately high compensation a few days before 7 September.

The former management denies this.

One thing is for sure - the departure of so many lauded writers from Cumhuriyet is an "inestimable loss for Turkish journalism" at a time when over 90 percent of the media is controlled by people close to Erdogan, said Erol Onderoglu, Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders.

Turkey was ranked "the world's biggest jailer of journalists" in a Press Freedom report by Reporters Without Borders, dropping down two places to 157 out of 180 countries. 

The free speech advocates estimated about 90 percent of Turkey's newspaper coverage is pro-government.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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