How a History Magazine Fell Victim to Self-Censorship | Freedom House

How a History Magazine Fell Victim to Self-Censorship

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by Andrew Finkel

Cover of the censored
edition of NTV Tarih.  Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

The abrupt closure of NTV Tarih, a popular history magazine with a healthy circulation, may not be the most egregious example of self-censorship in Turkey. But it is an unhappy illustration of a mainstream media nervous of its own shadow.

“There was an element of happenstance. The magazine might have survived had it gone to press a few days earlier,” explains Neyyire Özkan, who was herself forced to step down as head of the Doğuş Magazine Group. She describes the magazine as a “star” in a list of publications that consisted of mainly Turkish-language franchises for titles such as Vogue, National Geographic, and GQ. NTV Tarih was among the best-selling monthly magazines in Turkey, but created entirely in-house.

“We weren’t stuffy, and we weren’t ideological. We took on controversies and tried to make people understand them from different historical perspectives,” says its editor, Gürsel Göncü. In short, it tried to turn “official” history into just history. When Prime Minister Erdoğan issued a guarded apology in November 2011 for the massacre of Alevis Kurds in the late 1930s  in the eastern province of Dersim, the magazine followed with a cover story about this no-longer taboo episode of Turkey’s early Republican past. Monthly sales of around 35,000 nearly doubled.

Göncü was expecting an even more enthusiastic reception for the July 2013 issue, which was inspired by the previous month’s headline-grabbing occupation of Istanbul’s Gezi Park. It set out to chart the history of popular protest in Istanbul from the 404 AD Nika riots of Byzantium, through Ottoman and Republican times. And it tried to see Gezi in the context of world events. The editors had also reconstructed a painstaking, hour-by-hour, tweet-by-tweet timeline of the Gezi events. This was billed on the front cover as #yaşarkenyazilantarih (#historywrittenasitislived). Success for the issue seemed all but guaranteed by an ingenious front cover. Artist Taha Alkan had recreated the iconic photo of the Gezi protest—a young woman university lecturer in a red dress being sprayed in the face with pepper gas by a masked policeman—in the style of an Ottoman miniature painting.

NTV Tarih was not the only Doğuş publication to use the Gezi theme. Even that month’s issue of Turkish Vogue featured Gezi chic. However, by the time the presses were ready to turn, the entire media group had become embroiled in far greater controversy. NTV television station, the group’s flagship 24-hour channel, had come under bitter attack by its own viewers for its initial reluctance to cover the Gezi events, and then for its eagerness to comply with the government’s spin that the protests were part of a greater conspiracy. As a result, crowds of demonstrators gathered in front of the media giant’s imposing Istanbul headquarters. On the other side of the city, near Gezi Park itself, protesters set upon and destroyed an NTV remote-broadcasting truck.

These protests appear to have prompted a great deal of soul-searching within the NTV newsroom. Cem Aydın, the media group’s chief executive officer, assembled the entire staff to confess that the organization had lost its way. Well before Gezi, the news channel had begun axing its hallmark discussion programs and shedding many well-known presenters and commentators who had given the station its critical edge. It had adopted an all too familiar, anodyne editorial policy to avoid giving the government offense. “We only covered news that wasn’t news,” one cameraman said, according to accounts by those who attended the meeting. Aydın pledged to recover the public’s trust, no matter how long it took.

Tayfun Ertan, NTV television’s first editor in chief, reflects on the irony of it all. The station was founded in 1996 by Cavit Çağlar, a businessman-politician who had been a supporter of then-President Süleyman Demirel and who was later convicted of bank fraud. “We only signed on to the project when he gave his word he would never interfere with news content. And he kept that promise, even during politically turbulent times,” Ertan says.

Ertan, still working for Doğuş Group (he was subsequently dismissed), listened to Aydın’s apology, and afterwards the two men spoke. “We have to get ourselves organized like we were at the beginning,” Aydın told him. Instead of trying to strike a balance that was not possible, he said that NTV should go back to its first principles of doing the news.

He never got the chance. A few days later, Aydın stepped down from his post. All this was before NTV Tarih tried to go to press.

Erman Yerdelen, chairman of the board of Doğuş Media Group, makes it clear that Aydın had no authority to convene that meeting of employees, nor to change the direction of NTV’s editorial policy. He describes that policy as “center of the road.” He rejects suggestions that NTV news channel had turned into an uncritical vehicle for the ruling party’s point of view but says nor is it the station’s mission to be a soapbox for the government’s critics.

If the television conveyed the message of the government, this was because it was popularly elected by 50 percent of the population and they wanted to know what the government had to say. The views of the opposition were also being reported. “To my way of thinking, Turkey has full freedom of the press. Anyone can start up a newspaper tomorrow,” Yerdelen says.

And Yerdelen is unapologetic about his decision not just to spike the Gezi issue of NTV Tarih but to shut down the magazine, lock, stock, and barrel. The reasons he gives are twofold: Despite its relatively high sales (twice as many copies as Turkish Vogue), it wasn’t bringing in advertising revenue. Printing extra copies would not have made it profitable. And he accused its editor of turning a history magazine into a political platform, and of trying to rush the magazine into press without approval. “It overstepped the boundaries,” he says.

Göncü takes issue with this interpretation of events. He says it is impossible that a strong-selling magazine produced by an editorial staff of five, that did not pay a foreign license, could have been taking a loss. And he says it was inconceivable to think the magazine could leave the printers without the publisher’s consent.

At the same time, he remains philosophical about his brainchild’s plight. The pages of the magazine found their way onto the Internet, and from there to the publishing house Metis, who reprinted the Gezi issue as a book. The proceeds go to the families of those who died in the Gezi protests. “What happened to the magazine cannot be erased. It became part of the history it tried to write.”