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Turkey targets a voice of dissent

Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

ISTANBUL -- The front page of a recent edition of Cumhuriyet offered a sampling of the hard-hitting coverage for which Turkey's oldest independent newspaper is known:

Election officials "violated international law" in certifying a controversial referendum in April giving the president broad new powers. Crowds were flocking to an antigovernment protest march. Leaked emails written by the president's son-in-law were published verbatim, which a prosecutor said was akin to divulging "state secrets."

Beyond the bold headlines, however, there were clear signs of the turmoil threatening the century-old daily -- and all news organizations that question Turkey's increasingly authoritarian government.

Atop the front page was a box that has run every day since last fall, featuring portraits of 12 jailed Cumhuriyet executives and columnists who are facing up to 43 years in prison on terrorism-related charges after a failed coup attempt one year ago.

The anniversary of the coup attempt Saturday will be marked by a series of national events commemorating the spontaneous public uprising that helped repel an attack on parliament and the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Government supporters will take to the streets to re-enact an episode from that night before Erdogan delivers a speech at parliament at 2:32 a.m. Sunday, marking the moment a year ago when the building was attacked.

But for many in Turkey the anniversary is not cause for celebration. Erdogan has used the attempted coup to justify a prolonged state of emergency that has seen tens of thousands arrested, more than 100,000 civil servants dismissed from their jobs, at least 150 journalists imprisoned and scores of independent newspapers, magazines and TV and radio stations shut down.


At Cumhuriyet, there are signs of struggle that go beyond the arrests of top editors. In a recent, 18-page weekday edition, there was only one small paid advertisement, from a Peugeot dealership.

Editors say advertisers have deserted a paper seen as a symbol of resistance to Erdogan's growing authoritarianism.

"Even before the coup attempt we were having difficulty attracting advertising because companies were afraid of the government," said Atakan Sonmez, the online news editor, bleakly scanning the pages at his desk inside the paper's gray, six-story headquarters in central Istanbul.

"Now, it's almost zero."


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