Photo Caption: Cumhuriyet 1 June 1924
Since I recently published an article on Al-Jazeera about the long struggle for press freedom in Turkey, I thought I’d post something here that is part of the deeper background of that piece. In the piece, which deals with the recent arrest of Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization, I mention that Dündar’s own paper was founded on less than independent grounds. Today, of course, Cumhuriyet is one of the only papers in Turkey that is run on a charitable trust and not by a holding company or plutocrat, meaning it is probably the most independent paper going, in addition to be the nation’s longest-running daily. With that in mind, let me take you back to the very first days of the newspaper’s founding.
Cumhuriyet was founded in early 1924 as a partnership between three men: Yunus Nadi, a prominent journalist who would become the most influential voice in shaping the paper in the early years, Nebizade Hamdi (aka Ahmet Hamdi Ülkümen), a member of parliament and a close political collaborator with Mustafa Kemal, and Zekeriya Sertel, a veteran journalist who had just recently been named the first Director General of Turkey’s Press Ministry. Sertel, a big character in my dissertation, prior to being appointed to that post had just returned from a three year stint in New York studying at Columbia’s newly founded School of Journalism. Sertel was clearly the young upstart in the bunch, and his aggressive, American-influenced approach clashed early and often with Kemalist insiders in Ankara.
In one early instance, Sertel noticed that there was a lot of concern, particularly amongst the leading Istanbul newspapers, that Mustafa Kemal was out to establish a dictatorship. In order to counter this, Sertel suggested to his superiors that the new president of the republic hold weekly press conferences, just as the American president did, where domestic and foreign journalists could hear him recap the events of the week and then ask direct questions. The response from Mustafa Kemal’s desk: “If the President is made to provide information or answer questions about confidential information, that information or news must in no way be published.” And later, in taking this issue up with İsmet İnönü, “Yes, if you look at it this way: what if these attacks from journalists are continuing, or if they do not comply with confidentiality agreements, or if they misquote me?”
This fear of the press irked Sertel considerably, “By expressing these words of concern, the Pasha would no longer approach the subject of press conferences. Because he wasn’t accustomed to press freedom. The first thing to come to his mind was not enlightening the press, it was to forcefully silence them.” He’d continue to be abrasive with his superiors, and by early 1924 was on his way out of the Press Directorate when he received an invitation to come to Istanbul and found Cumhuriyet. No doubt, Mustafa Kemal was pleased with the way this unfolded, and to ease the transition of one of his more cantankerous appointees into a position where he’d be ensconced by moderating voices like Nadi and Nebizade Hamdi, he presented the owners with an old building in the Çağaloğlu section of Istanbul known as the Kırmızı Konak [The Red Mansion], which had previously served as the party headquarters of the Committee of Union and Progress. In addition to being founded with this gift, the paper took an explicit line against the harshest critics of the regime – which had, at that time, come from some stalwarts of the Istanbul press scene like Ahmet Emin Yalman and Hüseyin Cahit Yalçın. This is why, as I say in the Al Jazeera piece, the newspaper was founded with a “gift” from Mustafa Kemal, and why it was often referred to as an “official” press organ.
For his part, Zekeriya Sertel would leave the paper for financial reasons less than a year after he had helped to establish it. He and his wife, Sabiha Sertel, would occasionally write for the paper in later years, but would go on to acclaim for founding a number of other newspapers and journals, including Resimli Ay and Tan.
For more on this, you should check out the new edition of Zekeriya Sertel’s memoirs, Hatirladıklarım, from Can Yayınevi and visit the exhibit on the Sertels and Tan at the Halil Lütfü Dördüncü İş Merkezi in Çağaloğlu.