Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

Time was when Zaman was Free

Riot police use tear gas to disperse protesting employees and supporters of Zaman newspaper in Istanbul

By Alper Ali Riza

We have all heard of press barons and press moguls, but in all my years of observing politics I have never heard of press trustees. They sound a benign bunch of banal apparatchiks but make no mistake, Zaman (Time) – Turkey’s biggest circulation newspaper – has been muzzled by the appointment of government trustees.

The police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon against protesting readers outside Zaman’s premises in Istanbul to effect the trustees’ takeover last week. These trustees are so crass that the tear gas had hardly settled before they shamelessly proceeded to convert Zaman into an organ of the government. Incredible!

Time was when I wrote articles for Zaman with the abandon of an English free spirit. Below is a taste of the freedom I enjoyed in my articles for all those who lament the muzzling of one of the last bastions of free speech in Turkey.

On Erdogan’s extravagant palace
Erdogan got elected and re-elected, most recently, as head of state, and plainly it has gone to his head, and if proof of this were needed it lies in the grotesque palace he built at huge public expense to impress Middle Eastern despots while imprisoning freedom loving journalists.

Erdogan was himself imprisoned – in VIP comfort – for reciting some verses from a poem by Ziya Gokalp.

‘The minarets are our bayonets
The Domes our helmets
The mosques our barracks
The faithful our soldiers’

‘And a palace our reward!’ could felicitously be added without disturbing its rhyme or rhythm.

As a fiery piece of polemic the poem must have struck a chord, certainly with the sentencing judge, who sent Erdogan to prison for ten months – he only served four – and banned him from public life which was cancelled when the AK Party came to power in 2002. He was actually convicted of inciting religious discord and, it has to be said, the judge was remarkably prescient about how divisive Erdogan could be. (December 23, 2014)

On the appointment of Ahmet Davutoglu as prime minister
“Define zero” Kemal Ataturk once asked an academic. The reply was as witty as it was obsequious: “your humble servant in your presence my lord,” he replied, to the great amusement of all who have come across it since then. It eventually landed him the job of education minister and a place in the history of Turkish political obsequiousness.

The question posed by Ataturk and the reply he received spring to mind when pondering the appointment of Ahmet Davutoglu as prime minister, not because President Erdogan has the humour or philosophical curiosity to ask such a question, but because the question is highly relevant and should have been asked in light of the dismal failure of Davutoglu’s zero problems policy. (August 26, 2014)

On Erdogan’s ambivalence about Islamic extremism
The effect of Erdogan’s ambivalence about Islamic extremism on many Turkish Cypriots is to make them wonder if this will lead to a fundamental realignment that would make Turkey unsuitable as a guarantor power in Cyprus. Turkey has a special place in the hearts of most Turkish Cypriots but it is the Turkey of Ataturk that has pride of place. Not the regimes that came and went, nor the caliphate of the Sultans, nor the illusory Neo-Ottoman dreams of Prime Minister Davutoglu, nor indeed the Islamic Turkey of President Erdogan, but the secular modern European state envisaged by Ataturk. (October 29, 2014)

On thinking the unthinkable
President Erdogan has compelled Turkish Cypriots to think the unthinkable – what would happen if Turkey became an extremist religious state? Not many people remember the Treaty of Guarantee between Turkey and Cyprus. The other parties are Britain and Greece. Each of the guarantor powers has the right unilaterally to take remedial action in the event of a breach of the treaty. The breach that occurred in 1974 was an attempt by Greek army officers to unite Cyprus with Greece, which is expressly prohibited by the treaty.

The right of the three guarantor powers to take military action is controversial. It was included as a result of the delicately balanced independence arrangements that enabled Cyprus to become independent in 1960 and was designed to avoid union with Greece by the Greek Cypriots and partition by the Turkish Cypriots. (October 29, 2014)

Farewell to Zaman
I had actually penned an article for Zaman last week and was about to send it when the police raided. It was on Turkish guarantees in light of the advent of Russian power in the eastern Mediterranean.

What follows is a shorter version of my article. It is my farewell to Zaman, until we meet again!

In the article I maintain that the Turkish Cypriots need to be reassured about security but there are other more suitable ways of providing for this than giving Erdogan’s Turkey carte blanche to intervene militarily. With an aggressive Russia hovering over Turkey’s shoulder and the alienation of most of her neighbours this would not be wise, not least because Erdogan and his ilk are ruthless and have been known to order military action opportunistically for domestic consumption.

On the other hand, the idea that the EU can guarantee Turkish Cypriot security is nonsense. The last time troops from an EU country were given the role of protecting a community was in Bosnia. Dutch troops were deployed to protect Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica as recently as 1995. Instead of protecting them they allowed ten thousand to perish in the worst act of genocide since World War II. I do not think the genocide would have occurred if the troops deployed had been Turkish instead of Dutch.

The answer in Cyprus is to address the needs of both sides by concentrating on the real issue between them. What the Greek Cypriots cannot accept is Turkey having a right in international law by treaty to intervene militarily. Who can blame them? What the Turkish Cypriots actually need, however, is not for Turkey to have such a right but for the constituent state in which they will be the core community to have the facility under the constitution to request international assistance rather than rely in vain on the central government to act.

If the security of the Turkish Cypriots were actually threatened – God forbid – the country likely to assist if asked is Turkey, but this would be following a request inextremis in accordance with the UN Charter under the principle of self defence that only permits the use of necessary and proportionate force.

It was Robert Burns, the Scottish national poet, who put in verse the obvious truth that we would avoid blunders if we could see ourselves as others see us. Guarantees by Turkey are to Greek Cypriots what guarantees by Russia would be to Turkish Cypriots!

Alper Ali Riza is a Queen’s counsel and a part time judge in the UK

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