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Expect many more restrained headlines next year

What would have seemed outlandish predictions for Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey in 2014 have been out-done by reality, writes Caleb Lauer.
A protestor waves the Turkish flag from a roof top at Taksim Square to protest the actions of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Uriel Sinai / Getty Images
A protestor waves the Turkish flag from a roof top at Taksim Square to protest the actions of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

A few years ago, I asked an Istanbul panel on education reform if Ottoman Turkish – the Turkish language written in the Arabic script, which was done away with in the 1920s by Turkey’s reformist president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – could ever become part of the modern curriculum. Learning this language, I thought, might be a positive step towards reconnecting the Turkish people with their essentially illegible past. The question was politely laughed-off by the panellists, one of whom drew a line under the prospect saying simply: “That would be counter-revolutionary.”

The addition of Ottoman Turkish to the high school curriculum is now being debated, which should give some sense of the kind of year Turkey has had. What’s more, this supposedly “counter-revolutionary” development was a relatively minor example of the year’s jaw-dropping and divisive headlines from Turkey.

What will the headlines be in 2015? General elections, currently scheduled for June, could be the main fixture. Beyond that, predicting current events is, as always, a fool’s errand.

But the question of Turkish headlines in 2015 remains important. One way to look at the question is through the lens of press freedom. Is it foolish to predict a year of greater convergence in Turkish headlines? With continuing arrests, firings, and government pressure, Turkish headlines and reports – regardless of the actual facts of the news story – will likely become more disciplined, more uniform, and more in-line with the presumed wishes of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey has the “world’s freest press”, according to Mr Erdogan. A remarkable thing about this recent claim was not how unhinged it sounded, but the cynical genius with which it was made. President Erdogan provided his constituency with a counter-narrative to the international condemnation of Turkey’s sustained media crackdown.

Nowhere else in the world, he said on December 26, could people so freely publish hate speech, libel, defamatory and inaccurate stories. Certainly, these things are problems here. But the genius lay in presenting the issue of press freedom in such terms. Thereby, Mr Erdogan made the argument that the press’s bad behaviour was the product of too much freedom – a description, as good as any, of the logic of paternalistic discipline. A significant proportion of Mr Erdogan’s substantial constituency appreciates just such an approach to political leadership; and many, no doubt, were probably left thinking that press freedom needed to be curbed.

Headlines may be more disciplined in 2015, but they won’t be boring. They can’t afford to be. Indeed, a second way to look ahead at Turkey’s headlines is through the lens of social control. In this regard, one must ask: to what degree will the headlines be bombastic? And, whose interest does this serve?

Magicians, martial artists and manipulators have always known the value of misdirection and of keeping one’s opponents off-balance. Despite the apparent chaos of profoundly outrageous, tragic, or difficult to comprehend developments constantly redirecting the focus of the daily agenda, the regularity with which they scream complete change is fundamentally useful to those in power.

Take the government’s proposal to introduce Ottoman Turkish lessons for high schoolers. This, like so much other news created by the government’s plans, claims, and utterances, crowds the headlines. It keeps the opposition busy with the need to react, consumes people’s energies because they are forced to protest and altogether keeps contending forces on the wrong foot.

The dilemma of course, is that though next year’s headlines may be the product of an even more constricting system of control and an even more consolidated programme of misdirection, they will not be unimportant. We will be compelled to pay attention to them.

Caleb Lauer is a freelance journalist who covers Turkey

Updated: December 30, 2014 04:00 AM

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