‘Do you have anybody nominated as Ahmed Riza Bey?’ I asked some in the crowd.
It was meant to be a joke, and many have responded with a laughter. Some pointed out impishly to an elderly figure standing here or there. More laughter.
It was a large group of people, who had gathered last Friday at a hotel hall in Köln. Most of those who came – was able to attend – were from Turkey, meeting old friends, or new ones living in Germany or in the European neighborhood – Turks, Kurds, Alevis, others.
What brought them together was an event that was anticipated with high hopes: as their country was dragged into an ever darker vortex of persecution and polarisation, and its media and academia being annihilated with a geometric pace, a new TV channel, ARTI TV which was being born with the promises of independence, critical content and vastly diverse opinion. It was also coupled with a online news site, ARTIGERCEK.
Founders say they are keen on full transparency on ownership: It is backed by the Netherlands-based Arti Media Foundation. Hopes are, its independent backers will help it get institutionalized.
As it went on air that night, invitees formed a perfect gathering of (Turkish and German) journalists, but it was the dissidents, which in a flash reminded me of the famous ‘Young Turks’ or ‘Young Ottomans’ – more than a hundred years ago.
Ahmed Rıza was one of the founding figures of the opponents of the oppressive Ottoman Sultan at that time, Abdulhamid II. Ahmed Rıza’s dissenting predecessors had begun to be driven underground, because they were fiercely against the decision by the Sultan, after a two year thaw, had abolished the firts modern constitution of the (declining) empire. So, from 1878 on, they organized, clandestinely, a movement which would work to reinstate a constitutional monarchy. They spread in the west, from Thessaloniki to rest of the Balkans, and some found a ground in Paris. Its second congress was held, under discreet French premises, in Paris 2007.
Ahmed Rıza was, along with another reformist figure, Prince Sabahaddin, an ancestor of Turkish liberalist line. These Young Turks were in alliance at that time with other subjects of the empire, whose backbone was the politically enlightened Ottoman Armenians, led by Khatchatur Maloumian (who would later severely deceived). The state of exile, until after the Sultan was overthrown, was part of the tradition of Turkish opposition. (Ahmed Rıza remained a lead-figure until he was sidelined by hard-liner triumvirat, Talat, Enver and Cemal, and after fiercely resisting in Parliament their decision to exterminate the Armenians, he retreated, heart-broken, into reclusion, and died as a man of high integrity in 1930 in Istanbul.)
In some ways similar to those distant yet close turbulent times, once more against the background of a constitutional overhaul of historic dimensions, many freedom-seekers who feel the threat of prison and bans, start to reassemble abroad – this time with Germany the epicenter, a political magnet of democratic opposition and independent media.
Since Erdoğan’s ruling AKP brutally seized and/or chased out almost the entire bulk of critical channels from the government-controlled TURKSAT satellite and digital platforms, ARTI TV will be try to reach the audiences via Hotbird satellite.
For its founders who quickly launched the channel, it seemed a strategically correct decision. The referendum in mid-April, is in many aspects a ‘to be or not to be’ for Turkey as we know it, and it wants to fill a role which is totally abandoned in Turkish media today: a broad, diverse and fair public debate platform, open to all the democratic competitors to give their voices.
Given how venomously one-sided, aggressive, and threatening the AKP’s campaign became, not an easy to ask to persuade who disagree with Erdoğan to appear on screen and say it like one thinks.
Yet, it was, professionally speaking, a right choice to invest on a channel, than a newspaper: we all know that nearly 90 % of Turkish public as a whole receive news and comment – for free – only from TV channels. That is the main reason why TV as a medium from Gezi protests on was the prime target for Erdoğan’s team to take control of.
My colleagues with ARTI TV knew about the ‘hunger’ for alternative media in Turkey. People seek to be informed about abuses of power, about the declining economy, corruption and failures in foreign policy of Turkey. Such themes are non- existent, as the so-called ‘mainstream’ private channels, go to a joint broadcast mode whenever and wherever President Erdoğan appears to make a speech, attends a ceremony. There is also a general fatigue among viewers when they notice how the same pro-Erdoğan pundits jump from channel to channel every evening, pumping in the same propaganda.
Towards the end of the launching reception from central Köln, I found Celal Başlangıç, an age-old friend and the Editor of ARTI TV.
‘How is it going?’ I asked. He told me that the channel’s broadcast had gathered so much interest that its website, which was also airing the show, had been close to a point of collapse altogether.
I looked at those who had made this launch happen: they were busy keeping a technically fragile show (they had turned a hotel hall into a noisy studio, where everyone was at loose, keen on comments and views), I chatted with Turkish academics who had found a safe home in Germany in the past months, and felt what I felt for a long time:
If Erdoğan’s real intention is to raze the entire democratic resistance to the ground in Turkey; if he really believes that the journalist my colleagues will give in to the pressure at the end, if he hopes that the entire Turkish academia will be under his command, if he expects that the Kurds of Turkey – and its powerful diaspora – will fall under amnesia about their democratic demands on collective rights, he will continue to face challenges that will be frustrating for his party.
It is a battle with vast historic perspectives, that keep Turkey’s story open-ended. Unlike Turkic folks bent and broken by brutal dictators in Central Asia’ and Azerbaijan, perhaps a new ‘Young Turks’ movement is in the making – who knows? – refusing all the attempts to be ‘tamed’.
‘Do you see any Ahmed Rıza around here?’ I asked an elderly leftist intellectual before I left.
‘Sultans tend to cause such people to emerge’ he said. ‘I hope it doesn’t come to that…’