Turkish army prosecutors sent Ahmet Altan
| a profile of Ahmet Altan: http://www.sundayszaman.com/sunday/detaylar.do?load=detay&link=200823
A friend forwarded me this amateur translation, see the original at : http://22.214.171.124/makale/10325.htm
Pen against sword: a profile of Ahmet Altan
A number of months ago, Turkish army prosecutors sent Ahmet Altan, editor-in-chief of the Turkish newspaper Taraf, an ultimatum: Hand over the documents leaked from inside the army’s general command, or we are coming for them.
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So Altan spent the night in his Ýstanbul office, waiting for the raid. He wrote a column letting the army know he was looking forward to their arrival and had put on the tea. These days Taraf is at the forefront of another scandal based on leaked documents from inside the army -- an alleged plan to provoke both a military crisis with Greece and a domestic crisis using bombs against mosques.
Foreigners living in Turkey and who watch local news will recognize Altan’s newspaper from newscasts: Instead of reporting directly on the allegations, broadcasters often choose to report on Taraf’s coverage of the allegations. A Taraf headline is a staple image of many TV news stories about alleged military misconduct.
Since Altan helped launch the Taraf newspaper in November 2007, he and his news team have exposed army plots, cover-ups and national security negligence. They have published leaked plans for a military coup d’etat that was to follow the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) 2002 election victory. They have published an alleged army plan to plant guns and bombs in the homes of both AK Party members and followers of Fethullah Gülen, an influential Muslim scholar. And they have published transcripts of radio conversations between army officers conspiring to blame the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for the death of nine soldiers who had driven over their own landmine.
“If we have the document, and if it’s news, we publish it. We don’t care who will be harmed,” says Altan.
Until relatively recently, such coverage of the Turkish army didn’t happen. Since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Turkish Republic in 1923, the state and the army have been nearly synonymous, and the army has seen itself as a protector and heir to Atatürk’s cherished secular legacy. Disparaging the army’s image has always been illegal. Schools teach reverence for the army, and media bosses, with big business interests, have known that breaking faith with the army means losing bank loans and state contracts.
“If the army rules a country, they need taboos; otherwise, people would ask questions,” says Altan. “They need Atatürk. They need huge flags. … They need a lot of lies about history.”
Beyond exposing army scandals, Altan and his team have broken many of the most entrenched taboos of Turkish public life. On Taraf’s front page, Altan has affirmed the Armenian genocide; he printed the first Kurdish headline in a national newspaper; and when reporting deaths from Turkey’s conflict with the PKK, Taraf does not make the conventional distinction between dead “terrorists” and “martyrs.”
All of which can bring more than just legal trouble. Many journalists here complain of defamation and slander campaigns mounted against them, and in Turkey, slander can get you killed. In 2007, Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor, was murdered by fascists after a Turkish court found him guilty of “denigrating Turkishness.” (Afterwards an Internet video surfaced showing police holding the alleged assassin in custody, celebrating him as a hero and posing with him for photos.)
In late 2008, after Taraf published leaked satellite photos showing the army had allowed, whether by negligence or complicity, a PKK attack on an army outpost -- which killed 17 soldiers -- Chief of General Staff Gen. Ýlker Baþbuð publicly denounced the newspaper, saying, “Those who present the actions of the separatist terrorist organization as successful acts are responsible for the blood that has been shed and will be shed.”
Does Altan feel brave? “No,” he answers. “Bravery is something good for warriors. Not writers.”
He has a gun
And though Altan carries a Sig Sauer 9mm handgun for protection, the real day-to-day struggle is through borderline insolvency and endless legal drudgery. There are currently more than 100 prosecutions pending against Taraf, and many of its editors and columnists have been personally charged.
Bianet, a Turkish media monitor group, reported that in April, May and June 2009, 57 journalists were put on trial in Turkey. Reporters without Borders ranked Turkey 102nd out of 173 countries for press freedom in 2008. YouTube and Richard Dawkins’s official Web site are blocked here. In 2006, a leaked memo revealed the army had categorized Turkish journalists as “pro” or “anti” army.
In total, Altan has so far been personally charged more than 50 times and estimates he has faced a total of 100 years of jail time. “To be charged is nothing new for me. It’s part of life.”
Born in 1950, Altan grew up in Ankara and Ýstanbul. He was kicked out of the top primary school, high school and university in Turkey, apparently for the same reasons each time: laziness, indifference and “sometimes arrogance,” he says, smiling. Eventually graduating from Ýstanbul University with a degree in economics, Altan began translating novels and working as a journalist.
Altan’s vocation seems, in part, to have been inherited. His father, Çetin Altan -- a well-known writer and former member of Parliament -- was charged more than 300 times during his career and was jailed for his politics. “When I was a child, nearly every morning he used to go to court. I believed it was very normal, that every father goes to court and then to his office,” says Altan, laughing. “He taught us: Don’t be a traitor to writing. If you betray writing, you will lose yourself. You must not have any concern other than the honesty and sincerity of your writing.”
Ahmet Altan has published eight novels, the first when he was 32. A number have been best sellers; some have won prestigious awards. And, in 1985, a judge found one of his novels to be so obscene he ordered all copies rounded up and burned.
Ten years later, Altan wrote a column in a national newspaper describing “Kurdey,” a country whose ruling Kurdish majority oppressed and deprived a Turkish minority of cultural rights -- Altan’s inverse view of contemporary Turkey. He was fired, convicted of “supporting terrorism” and given a suspended sentence of one-and-a-half years. Altan seems a natural to lead one of the most effectively iconoclastic Turkish newspapers. But when he was first asked to do the job, he refused “10 or 15 times” before finally agreeing.
‘If I leave, it will be very hard to keep the newspaper together’
“I said it’s too risky, you will lose a lot of money and I don’t want to,” Altan recalls. “I’m 60. I’m a novelist. I like to write novels. I don’t like running a newspaper. Someone else can do that. No one else can write my novels. And I don’t have too much time. I want to go back to my old life. I like to swim in the mornings. I used to have money. I used to have time. I used to work when I wanted. Look now,” Altan says. “My last novel sold 1 million copies. Am I lucky now -- to be here?”
“It is a weakness to think you are very important. [But] I think I am very important for this newspaper. That’s my weakness. And I think if I leave, it will be very hard to keep the newspaper together.” He says he doesn’t want the owner to lose his money or his reporters to lose their jobs. But might not Turkey also lose something if Taraf closes? “Taraf has opened the door; now others can easily pass through that door,” Altan answers.
Altan portrays himself as reluctant and somehow ill-suited to his position at Taraf, but his aggressive coverage of the army and state is a practical expression of beliefs he has held for years: that the sovereign nation state has no future and that Turkey’s future is with the European Union.
“With its wars, prisons, police, spies, assassins and torturers, the state is the most obvious representative of savagery in this age,” Altan said in a 2004 speech to a United Nations’ conference on the death penalty.
But the EU is a “new style of state … In a way, it is communism, but it has come in a way different than how Marx thought it would,” says Altan.
“What we are trying to do [at Taraf] is to help Turkey go along with the development of the world, peacefully,” says Altan. “But the Turkish state does not want to see that reality.”
“So, of course, I started this newspaper knowing what I would do,” he says. Altan believes progress is inevitable. “[But] we want to stop losing lives while we get there. We want to stop losing children in the Southeast.” (In Turkey’s war with the PKK most people are killed in the southeastern corner of the country.)
However, millions of Turks are passionately secular and believe the army is the only thing protecting Turkey from an Islamic takeover. The reforms and massive electoral success of the governing AK Party have increased secularists’ anxiety -- especially as the civilian government is now, for the first time, successfully forcing the army to relinquish the state. Many Turks fear this means Shariah -- Islamic law -- will eventually govern Turkey. And among many of these people, it is taken for granted that Altan’s newspaper is a tool of the Islamists. “They say [religious] conservatives want Shariah. But what I see is that the conservatives want the European Union,” Altan says. “And they must [join the EU]; otherwise, they can’t have the power.” The AK Party is the only major party in Turkey in favor of joining the EU, and one of the criteria for EU membership is civilian control of a country’s army.
“I measure [their] politics according to their approach to the European Union. If someone wants to be part of it, I support them. I don’t care who they are,” says Altan. “I’m an atheist, and I don’t see any danger of Shariah … And if we [Taraf newspaper] see any sign of Shariah, we will go after it,” Altan says. “You can’t bring Shariah at the same time you are trying to join the EU.”
“We want the people to be free here. Muslims, Alevis, Kurds, democrats, leftists, rightists, every citizen of Turkey must be free to express themselves and to live how they want. …[But] we have a funny problem here. Those with a Western [lifestyle] are against Western democracy; those who are against the Western style of life accept Western [political] values.”
Altan calls those with a Western lifestyle “the minority,” and the more pious majority “the people.”
“The minority,” Altan says, “I think they hate the people. They do not want the people to take power because the people cannot dance, they don’t like to drink wine, they do not know how to flirt. Yes, their lifestyle is very different. Yes, my lifestyle is very much like those who blame me now. But I like the people. I know they are not stupid. I like to talk to them. I see how witty they are, how intelligent they are, how aware of the situation they are… And I want them to take the power. And it’s something that must happen. The power belongs to the people.”
07 February 2010, Sunday
CALEB LAUER ÝSTANBUL