Sedat Ergin’s departure shows the Turkish government’s grip over the country’s news media is supreme and terrifying
On Tuesday afternoon, following days of speculation, the editor of Turkey’s highest-selling newspaper Hürriyet fell on his sword.
Sedat Ergin will resign on Thursday, blamed for stoking a row between Turkey’s government and its armed forces.
He’s going because of a headline – a headline he probably did not write – that was denounced on live television by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The offending story was the result of a non-attributable briefing by the General Staff, the highest body in the Turkish military, to Hürriyet’s Ankara editor Hande Fırat.
Published on the front page of the newspaper’s Saturday edition (see above), the story carried the armed forces’ view on seven recent developments for which it and Hulusi Akar, the Chief of the General Staff, had been criticised in recent weeks.
Among these seven developments were General Akar’s photo-op next to the disputed Aegean island of Kardak, which Greece claims as Imia; allegations he jointly purchased property with a member of the Fethullah Gülen network; and the muted response to the government directive permitting some servicewomen in the military to wear headscarves.
It is clear from the way it is written that Ms Fırat worked hard to prevent the story being pinned upon any single individual: the tone is passive, she refers to the General Staff as a collective organisation and the phrase “according to military sources” is peppered throughout.
There is no doubt that there is a story here: when the Turkish military has something to say, it is almost always something worth writing about.
Uncomfortable or restless?
But while Hande Fırat can’t be criticised on her story, the same can’t be said for the night desk team at Hürriyet – in particular, the people who write the newspaper’s headlines.
The story was published on the front page under the headline “Seven responses to seven criticisms”. But the headline on page 25, where the story continues, was incautious: Karargâh rahatsız. “Karargâh” is the word for military headquarters, a shorthand for central command, while “rahatsız” is an ambiguous Turkish word that could translate as uncomfortable, unwell or even restless.
To Hürriyet’s subeditors, the headline referred to the Turkish military’s discomfort at how it was being criticised. To Hürriyet’s detractors, the headline was implying the Turkish military is preparing to stage another military coup.
One such detractor was Mr Erdoğan himself.
‘No right’ to write headline
“I tell you straight, the headline showed rudeness, a lack of character,” the president said, according to the official Anadolu Agency.
“Neither the newspaper’s management nor the staff have the right to write such a headline. Some legal steps have been taken and we will follow this. Because there is no right and no authority to set state institutions against each other.”
Mr Erdoğan’s words had an electric effect. Within the hour, the Turkish Armed Forces – after four days of silence – put out a statement that distanced itself from Hürriyet’s choice of headline.
But the same statement said the Turkish Armed Forces and General Akar were being subjected to unjust criticism – thus reinforcing the premise of Hande Fırat’s story.
It is Sedat Ergin, Hürriyet’s editor since 2014, who takes ultimate responsibility for the episode.
“We saw after publishing the story that our headline could be interpreted as if there is unease against the government within the General Staff,” Hürriyet admitted in a statement it released on Tuesday evening.
“It did not cross our minds that such a meaning could be attributed to this headline. Such an implication was definitely not our intention.”
Mr Ergin will be moved gently into retirement and replaced by veteran journalist Fikret Bila.
There are two broad conclusions to draw from this episode.
The first is the obvious: this episode once again demonstrates the Turkish government’s grip over the press. This morning, the president toppled the editor of Turkey’s top daily in mere minutes. Is it any wonder journalists are afraid for their jobs, for their liberty?
Second, the government’s indignant reaction is quite revealing. Who can confidently say they don’t fear a repeat of last summer’s coup attempt?