Turkish daily’s Erdoğan-friendly new board sacks editor-in-chief, reverses editorial policy

The newly elected board of the Cumhuriyet Foundation, the owner of Turkey’s opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, sacked Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu on Saturday and pulled the online version of Sabuncu’s farewell article to readers.

The new board includes controversial people such as Alev Coşkun, who was alleged to have sent anonymous denunciations to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that were used as evidence in the trials of Cumhuriyet employees, according to a report by online news outlet Ahval.

Coşkun has become the new chair of the foundation.

Turan Karakaş, another new member of the board, was a parliamentary candidate for the neo-nationalist Homeland Party (VP) in the June 24 elections. Ali Sirmen has been elected deputy chairman of the board; Işık Kansu has been named general secretary; and İrfan Hüseyin Yıldız is the new treasurer.

The board has chosen Aykut Küçükkaya as Cumhuriyet’s new editor-in-chief in place of Sabuncu, who held position for a little more than two years.

Fifteen staff members of the newspaper, including Sabuncu, were given lengthy prison sentences in April in the Cumhuriyet trials, during which prosecutors claimed the newspaper aided the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Gülen movement.

“The Cumhuriyet trial is part a systematic effort to silence independent media and critical voices in Turkey to prevent public scrutiny of the government,” Hugh Williamson, Europe, and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, had said following the court’s verdict.

“It is time to leave now. History will tell the reasons why. Nobody will hear even a single word against Cumhuriyet coming from my mouth,” wrote Sabuncu, who spent 17 of his 25 months as editor-in-chief of the newspaper in pretrial detention.

“I am not writing this to tell you the dirt dumped on us during the Cumhuriyet trials or those who played a leading role or served as extras,” Sabuncu said in his first and last Cumhuriyet editorial.

During his term as editor-in-chief, the newspaper strove for objectivity and abided by universal rules, Sabuncu said, becoming a platform for all those oppressed in Turkey without any discrimination.

“Murat Sabuncu bid farewell to Cumhuriyet after the change in the executive board, maintaining his usual elegance,” journalist Banu Güven tweeted, calling Sabuncu a democrat and a principled person.

Another journalist, Yavuz Oğhan, said appointing Çoskun, who had testified against the newspaper’s staff during trials, as the head of the new board was enough to expose the ”vileness” of the latest developments.

However, the administrative change in Cumhuriyet was welcomed by those who have been criticising the newspaper for pursuing a liberal policy rather than adhering to the values of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.

“Cumhuriyet afresh… Now we have another reason to wake up with hope every morning,” Metin Feyzioğlu, the head of the Turkish Bar Association, said.

“Atatürk’s enlightenment revolutions form the basis of the newspaper’s editorial policy. As of today, the newspaper returns to the editorial policy loyal readers have been longing for,” the new Cumhuriyet board said in a statement.

The new board also sacked the newspapers managing editor, Faruk Eren, and editor Bülent Özdoğan. Columnist Aslı Aydıntaşbaş announced on Twitter that she had decided to part ways with Cumhuriyet after the takeover, a move that is likely to be followed by many other Cumhuriyet contributors.

Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 237 journalists and media workers were in jail as of September 6, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 169 were under arrest pending trial while only 68 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 147 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016.

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