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The following interview by Tunca Öğreten with Aydın Engin appeared on the Turkish-language pages of Gemany’s Taz newspaper on 11 September 2018. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton

A tedious Kemalism will dominate the “New Cumhuriyet”

Cumhuriyet’s management has changed and many people have left the paper. I spoke to 78-year-old journalist Aydın Engin, who managed the newspaper while the trials were proceeding, about the paper’s recent past and future.

TUNCA ÖĞRETEN, 2018-09-11

The elections for the management of the foundation that owns Cumhuriyet newspaper were reheld. Alev Coşkun, who gave testimony for the prosecution during the Cumhuriyet trial and led to the managers and columnists being detained and sentenced, was elected to head the foundation.

On Coşkun’s election, editor-in-chief Sabuncu was dismissed. Following this, 22 reporters, editors and columnists resigned from the paper. I spoke about what had happened to 78-year-old experienced journalist Aydın Engin, who managed the paper for the duration of the trial.

You managed the newspaper while some of Cumhuriyet newspaper’s columnists and managers were being held in detention while on trial. How do you feel about the paper’s current state?

Speaking for the paper, I am not happy You will recall that Cumhuriyet reported on the trucks belonging to the National Intelligence Agency that were halted by the gendarmerie and were carrying ammunition to jihadists in Syria in May 2015. Since that day, we were faced with a rulership that tried various means to silence the paper. To this end, they wanted to annul the Cumhuriyet Foundation election by judicial means and they imprisoned some of our colleagues. There were those within the paper who did not care for us. In fact, some of them even went and gave testimony in court. There were also those who started petitions urging us to reach an accommodation with those who wanted to usurp the foundation management. So, for these people to now be on the paper’s management troubles me, and sometimes angers me.

Why were you unable to reach an accommodation with the individuals who have now formed the management?

There was no prospect in professional and moral terms of reaching an accommodation. Those now forming the management are Alev Coşkun and his people, who testified for the prosecution in the case in which our colleagues were on trial. They are also people who subscribe to the ultra-Kemalist ideology that I could describe as being excessively nationalistic. In other words, they were individuals who seek a solution to the Kurdish problem through military means and describe relations with the European Union in terms of Western imperialism. In the end, we waged a struggle for democracy and were also successful. Today, though, Cumhuriyet is sapped of strength, even if it has not been fully silenced.

Some say “a coup was staged against Cumhuriyet” in the form of changing the paper’s management. Do you agree with this “coup” description?

No, I do not. Nothing resembling a coup is involved. Yes, the courts are Tayyip Erdoğan’s and they are not independent. But, one way or another, the foundation election was reheld under a court order. And the well-organized people who united around an ideological line were in numerical preponderance in the reheld election. So, we lost the battle between the ultra-Kemalists and those who wished to do more libertarian, more democratic and more independent journalism.

Just to dig a bit deeper ... whose hands is Cumhuriyet newspaper now in?

Cumhuriyet is a newspaper whose glory is equalled by its dark pages. For example, there was a time when they said they were printing poet Nazım Hikmet’s photograph to be spat on, and when they ran headlines sending greetings to fascist Italy. Such zigzags occur in newspapers’ histories. But this is more pronounced at Cumhuriyet. There has been a split along nationalist and liberarian lines at the paper in all periods. This was something I experienced a lot at the time I was editor-in-chief in the 90’s. However, İlhan Selçuk, who headed the paper from 1991 to 2010, was a manager with a knack for establishing a good balance between the two wings. Following Selçuk’s death, the tussle between these two wings became even more intense.

Well, what changed when jurist Akın Atalay, who spent 543 days in pretrial detention, took over as foundation chair?

A renewal took place at the paper with Atalay being elected foundation chair and contributions began to come from individuals who could not be described as being Kemalist. This change provoked a reaction on the paper’s Kemalist wing. They also found their own supporters among the internal newspaper staff. Some of those who sided with them did so for ideological reasons, while some lent their support saying, “The paper will suffer harm in this tussle. If the paper is closed we’ll end up unemployed,” and they dug their heels in against change. This team is now in charge. It is both early and it would also be unfair to say, “They’ll do so-and-so.” There is a need first to look and see.

The new management made an announcement following the changeover and proclaimed that henceforth it would conduct “Uğur Mumcu journalism,” making reference to the investigative journalist who is synonymous with Cumhuriyet and was murdered in a bomb attack in 1993. What will they do by way of investigative journalism that was not done in your time?

Basically, stress was laid in that announcement on Uğur Mumcu’s Kemalist identity. When talk turns to Kemalists, there is a need to take Kemalists as a whole. There are Kemalists who worship the religion of secularism, and there are Kemalists who defend secularism. There is a serious nuance separating the two. Mumcu was my good friend. We set out in journalism on the same day. There was always a friendly ideological pushing and shoving between us. While sharing a raki, he would taunt me: “You have workers on the brain. Rather than instilling consciousness in a truck-load of workers, I would do so with one colonel and there would be a whole lot less bother.” Of course, this was a joke but at the same time it was suggestive of a viewpoint. So, the friends’ “Uğur Mumcu journalism” formulation does not tell me a lot. There have been many people like Mumcu who did investigative journalism at this paper.

There was also a formulation “Atatürk Cumhuriyet” in the same announcement. And you say the new management cooperated with Erdoğan’s prosecutors. Is it not a contradiction to both speak of being Ataturkist and align oneself with Erdoğan, who is perceived to be a danger to Atatürk’s Turkey?

For sure there is. Are we speaking of an Ataturkism that is a remnant of the Atatürk of the 30’s or an Ataturkism oriented towards the West that wants to create a modern Turkey? They actually want to say in that text with reference to our management, “They are not Ataturkists and they deviated the paper from the Ataturkist line.” This is a hollow formulation to me. If anything, it was used to tarnish us.

Do you think President Erdoğan is satisfied with Cumhuriyet’s new management?

He most certainly is. When the AKP came to power in 2002, the Gülen Brotherhood was its coalition partner and they committed a great many crimes together. He was the very Erdoğan who proclaimed himself to be the prosecutor of the Ergenekon trials that were launched by Brotherhood-affiliated members of the judiciary on the grounds that it was going to stage a coup against the AKP government. Those generals could not have been detained without Erdoğan’s approval. Later, on becoming enemies of the Gülen Brotherhood, they needed new partners. They brought out the generals who had been detained in the Ergenekon trials and appointed them to key posts. They also restored their good names. The former Ergenekonists are now closely aligned to Erdoğan. Putting all these things I have spoken of together, I can say that today’s Cumhuriyet management looks out from the same window as Erdoğan.

Will the Cumhuriyet that the new management brings out lose readers?

The number of people who buy the printed Cumhuriyet from newsagents is around forty thousand. I do not think there will be a fall in this number. But, as to those who attach importance to the paper’s editorial policy and will say, “Oh, the paper’s gone down the drain,” there are some one and a half million people who read Cumhuriyet on the internet. If anything falls, the number of digital readers will fall. Also, there will no longer be a Cumhuriyet that will satisfy young people. Because a tedious discourse of Kemalism, Ataturkism and secularism woven from the same cloth will dominate the paper. It seems to me that they will not permit any other voice to manifest itself.

Are there any stories in the period when you managed the paper that you regret and about which you say, “If only we hadn’t run that?”

Of course there are. Could it be otherwise? For example, we gave too much of a boost to the CHP candidate Muharrem İnce just because he was the candidate against Tayyip Erdoğan. I am a journalist who has known İnce from old times and who is familiar with his political proclivities. It was not right for us to have elevated him so much.

Prison sentences have been handed down to columnists and managers in the Cumhuriyet trial, yourself included. The case is now awaiting adjudication by the senior court. If the jail sentences are upheld, what will Cumhuriyet’s headline be the next day?

Trust me, this piques my curiosity, too. I do not think they would abase themselves to that extent and would say something like, “They have convicted our friends.” However, Alev Coşkun, who acted as a prosecution witness during the hearing, is currently foundation chair. So, I would not scream, “Oh, that’s impossible. I can’t believe it” if I encountered a headline reading, “Justice has been done.”

Archive of Turkish press translations by Tim Drayton