Turkey opposition daily Cumhuriyet shaken by internal strife

Istanbul (AFP) –


The Istanbul headquarters of Turkish opposition daily Cumhuriyet hums with the daily excitement of a busy newsroom as reporters work the phones chasing their next story.

On the wall, an old front page is proudly displayed, challenging the government. "You will not be able to take us down," it reads.

But the apparent normality belies a simmering conflict inside the leading independent newspaper which has been fiercely critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and seen several of its staff prosecuted and jailed.

The root of the tumult has on this occasion, however, not been the legal troubles under Erdogan, who has been repeatedly accused of riding roughshod over the media in Turkey and hampering freedom of expression.

It stems from a longstanding row between the liberal and nationalist flanks at the paper that resulted in wholesale changes at board level earlier this month.

Since then, nearly 30 journalists, including several veterans, have quit the nearly 100-year-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.

- A management coup? -

Unlike many Turkish newspapers Cumhuriyet, which means 'republic', is not owned by a business conglomerate -- which can be prone to government pressure -- but by an independent foundation.

On September 7, 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.

- 'Far from secular ideals' -

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.

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.

- 'Inestimable loss' -

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 September 7.

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.

Veteran writer Engin said he believed it might be possible for a liberal team to return "one day" to the head of Cumhuriyet because, after all, "the history of this newspaper is full of twists and turns, for better or worse".

But being in his 70s, it was over for him, he admitted.

"I am now an old journalist. I will not return."