Tensions grow over newspaper’s military claims

By Independent Turkey

As the country prepares to go to the polls in the constitutional referendum, old controversies are arising anew.

U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno greets Gen. Hulusi Akar, Turkish Land Forces commander before conducting an office call at the Pentagon, Arlington, Va., Jan. 27, 2015. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle/Released)

Public prosecutors in Istanbul have launched an investigation into a report claiming that senior members of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have been ‘disturbed’ by recent criticism levelled at the military.

The story, published by Hürriyet newspaper on February 24th, caused controvery for a headline, later changed, that some cirtics intepreted as implying the existance of a military junta. The article itself cited unnamed military sources who rebutted several ‘false reports’ involving the country’s most senior soldier, Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar. 

This included a defence of Akar’s relationship with senior figures in the American military, as well as his role in accompanying President Erdoğan on recent visits to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar.

Akar has increasingly come under scrutiny as the TSK seeks to rebuild its public image after the failed coup attempt of July 15th, 2016, when officers operating outside the chain of command sought to overthrow the democratically elected government.  

Significant in this regard is the article’s claim that the military command had not been consulted over the government’s recent decision to remove the ban on women wearing the headscarf as part of their military uniform.

Such an issue is deeply sensitive given that as recently as 2007 the General Staff issued a statement expressing their ‘dissatisfaction’ with the possible selection of Abdullah Gül – whose wife wears a headscarf – as president. The statement was widely interpreted as a threat to intervene against the Justice and Development Party government.

Supporters of the government have taken to social media to attack Friday’s article in Hürriyet as a similar ‘coup provocation’. But the newspaper has robustly defended both the article and its author Hande Fırat, calling the allegations ‘malevolent’ and ‘a wave of unlimited slander against its journalism’.

Fırat became a household name last July for her role in broadcasting Erdoğan’s video-call to television studios whilst the coup was underway, in what became a defining moment in turning the tide in favour of the government.  

However, the current controversy is only the latest incident in the long-standing tension between the government and Hürriyet’s parent group, Doğan Holding, one of the country’s largest and most influential conglomerates.

A once-powerful player within the media, in 2009 the company was forced to sell its interests in a series of newspapers and television stations under the threat of a multi-billion dollar fine for tax evasion.

Government critics have long claimed this as a political move aimed at constraining opposition media. Disputes between Doğan Holding and the government have rumbled on ever since, with Erdoğan at one point denouncing the head of the company of being ‘a coup lover’.  

The President took aim at the newspaper again on Tuesday, saying that Hürriyet had ‘no right and no authority to set state institutions against each other’ and that legal action would follow.  

It has since been announced that the newspaper’s editor, Sedat Ergin, is set to leave his role later this week.

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