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South Caucasus


Nursun Erel
The Nursun Erel's report was read during the meeting with mass-media and NGO representatives on November 29, 2006.
It’s been more than two centuries since Ibrahim Muteferrika (1) introduced the printing press to the Ottomans, and about 100 years later the first newspaper (Takvim-i Vekai, or Chronicle of Events) made its debut on 11 October 1831 in Istanbul.

It was meant mainly to spread government announcements, and important domestic and international events also appeared, but rarely. Takvim-i Vekai, which can be described as an official newspaper, besides Turkish was also published in Arabic, Greek, French and Armenian.

During the reign of Sultan Abdulmecid (1839-1861), with his personal encouragement, Ceride-i Havadis (Records of Events) started as a daily newspaper in 1840. In fact many experts call Tercuman-i Ahval (Interpretation of Circumstances) the first Turkish daily newspaper. It came out as the private enterprise of Capanoglu Agah Efendi, and its chief columnist was the famous writer Sinasi.

In that era we can see that 16 different daily newspapers were being published in Istanbul, and almost all were printed in Turkish, French, Italian, Greek, and Armenian. When we look in the archives at Armenian daily newspapers from that time, we see four: Megs, Masis, Avedopar and Tar.

This picture makes it clear how cosmopolitan Istanbul was, even all those years ago.


What about today? According to current official records, today over 820 daily newspapers are being published in Turkey. Forty-three of them are national papers, and the rest are regional. What about television stations? There are 24 national TV stations, and 36 national radio stations, but if we also consider the regional ones, these numbers soar to nearly 260 television stations and 1,100 radio stations.

As a journalist I’m certainly very glad to see such a large number and variety of publications and stations, but let’s discuss together the quality of the publications.

Let me illustrate my point giving you a very hot, even burning example.

Recently, the internationally known historian and sociology Professor Taner Akcam published a new book in the U.S. But even before it was published, the book stirred up quite a controversy just because of its title: “A Shameful Act” (2). (Certainly the book’s foreword, by this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner Orhan Pamuk, was also an issue.)

In his book, Akcam refers to several speeches of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the founder of Turkish Republic) and discusses how the Turkish administration looked at Armenians at that time. According to Akcam, Ataturk described the 1915 incidents against Armenians as “shameful acts.”

Right after he gave an interview mentioning this quote by Ataturk, Akcam and his claims came under sharp criticism by several leading newspaper columnists, who play a large role in setting Turkey’s public agenda.

For example, Ertugrul Ozkok, the editor in chief of daily Hurriyet, Turkey’s largest-circulation national newspaper, wrote this:

Taner Akcam published a new book in US on the Armenian issue. Certainly he might do this, but I have one objection. The title of his book is “A Shameful Act.” Once he was asked why, and he replied:

“These words (or actually one word in Turkish, “fazahat”) were used by Ataturk in 1924 during an address to Parliament. With these words, he expressed a truth, and since I believe the same, I chose this as my title."

I also read A. Turhan Alkan’s column in yesterday’s Zaman (another popular Turkish national daily). He says he read all the parliamentary records about the supposed speech of Ataturk but wrote:

“I wonder if Akcam has read those records from a better source than the parliamentary archives. If so, we would like to know, otherwise he is a slanderer, and in fact it is this which is the truly shameful act.”

Akcam teaches at a scholarly institution in the U.S (the University of Minnesota). He may claim that Turks have done very bad things to Armenians. We must digest them for the sake of freedom of expression. But once historical documents are distorted, then the boundaries of freedom of expression end, or at least they end academically.

So I want to address the institution, which is allowing Akcam to teach there.

If a thesis is based on distorted documents and such a person is welcomed academically, I would like to ask them:

Does hatred of Turks makes you so blind that you can even dare to cover up the falsification of records, violating the hallowed standards of scholarship?

But then the very next day, Ozkok wrote this in his column:

Yesterday, Sule Perincek (a journalist) called and said that A. Turan Alkan had been misled, as Ataturk in fact did use the words “a shameful act” in his speech. My column referring to Alkan’s opinions was inaccurate. So I was unjust in criticizing Taner Akcam. (4)

Ertugrul Ozkok was courageous enough to quickly correct himself, in fact twice. Because he was also wrong in giving the date of Ataturk’s historical speech as 24 April 1924. In fact, the speech was delivered on that day four years earlier, in 1920.

But one other journalist Fatih Altayli has claimed that Ataturk’s words were censored and distorted in later years.


As a journalist I was also very interested in that controversy, I wanted to see the documents with my own eyes, so I went to Parliament next day. In the original version of Ataturk’s speech (5) the word “fazahat” really appeared, which again means “shameful act” in English.

Many of you are must be wondering about the original text of Ataturk’s speech. In that speech Ataturk mainly tells the deputies in Parliament his views and concerns about recent developments. He refers to several letters the Istanbul administration wrote to him and how responded to these. In one paragraph of his speech he refers to the demands the British made of the Istanbul administration:

Their second demand was to never see any massacres in the country, but this isn’t related to the Armenians. Everyone knows about our country. In what region was there (or is there still ongoing) a massacre of Armenians? I certainly don’t want to mention the early years of the First World War, and also the Allies weren’t mentioning the shameful acts of the past.

* * *

Dear colleagues and friends, through citing those examples I wanted you to give you an impression of the Turkish press’s stance on such controversial matters.

I believe that this is a clear indication of Turkish press maybe somehow conditioned or misled sometimes but not to be dogmatic or obsessed on any kind of issues. Otherwise do you think the mentioned columnists would apologize very next day?

I believe that the essence of our job is striving to reach to the truth whatever difficulties we face. One mustn’t ever forget that prejudice is the greatest enemy of journalists. Having done this job for more than 25 years, I’ve also learned very well that it’s never too late to correct a mistake.

I wonder if the same principles and the same type of practices are also due among the Armenian press. I will read a paragraph from HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH report (6). Armenia: The Armenian government continues to use its powers to limit political activity, restricting freedom of assembly and persecuting those that it perceives as a threat to its hold on power. Human rights defenders critical of the government are particularly targeted for abuse. In the past year, such pressure extended to the ombudsperson’s office, following the release of her first annual report, which criticized the government for its human rights record. Torture and ill-treatment in police custody are widespread in Armenia, particularly in pretrial detention with the aim of coercing a confession or evidence against third parties. Abuse and mistreatment within the army is also common, with dozens of suspicious deaths occurring every year. Despite the emergence of significant independent and opposition print media, the government continues to restrict full media freedom in the country, including taking away the broadcasting frequencies of television channels that air independent news coverage about Armenia.

Thank you very much for your attention.
(1) Ibrahim Muteferrika (1674-1742) was the first person to run a printing press with moveable Arabic type in the Ottoman Empire. Originally Hungarian, when studying theology he was arrested by the Ottomans. Later he came to Istanbul and converted to Islam, and since he was a linguist he became the chief translator in the palace. He established the first press in Istanbul in 1720.
(2) “A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility” (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2006).
(3) Hurriyet, 1 October 2006
(4) Hurriyet, 2 October 2006
(5) Parliamentary Archives. Folder 1, Second Session, 24 April 1920.
(6) EU-South Caucasus: Concrete Human Rights Benchmarks Needed: EU Should Not Squander Leverage on Human Rights in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia (New York, December 9, 2005)