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Turkey/Iran: Media Help Create Diplomatic Crises

A visit to Turkey last week by Iran's deputy foreign minister highlighted efforts by both countries to improve ties after a period of strain. But, as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports in part 2 of a three-part series, tensions continue to simmer in the two countries' media.

Prague, 31 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When a bomb blew up secular newspaper columnist Ugur Mumcu seven years ago in Ankara, 200,000 people showed up at his funeral chanting, "Mullahs back to Iran."

Today, the murder -- along with those of other secular leaders in Turkey in the 1990s -- remains unsolved. But Mumcu's funeral chant continues to echo in Turkey's secular press and to haunt Turkish-Iranian relations. And sometimes it grows so loud it creates a diplomatic crisis.

That's what happened this spring, when Turkish police arrested suspects in connection with several 1990 assassinations. The round-up in May -- called Operation Hope b y Ankara's Interior Ministry -- initially set off a wave of Turkish press speculation that many of last decade's political murders finally might be solved.

But very soon, the speculation in Turkey's secular media evolved into angry accusations that the investigation had revealed Iran was behind the killings. soon after, Iranian newspapers took up the challenge. When the Turkish Interior Ministry arrested some 300 Iranians -- in what it later said were unrelated sweeps against illegal workers -- Iranian papers demanded Tehran cut back diplomatic and economic relations with Ankara.

The charges and counter-charges in the two countries' media set their governments scrambling to cool tempers without sacrificing their own national pride. Turkish leaders told Iranian diplomats there was insufficient evidence to accuse Tehran of involvement, but warned of serious consequences if such links were ever confirmed. And Iran demanded the immediate release of its citizens, telling Turkey to stop acting on what Tehran called rumors and emotional charges.

The storm has now passed and Operation Hope has fallen out of the Turkish headlines. But a new media-driven diplomatic crisis over the affair appears almost certain once the trials of the suspects begin, at a date still to be set.

Turkish analysts say that the reasons the crisis will return have to do as much with the nature of the Turkish press itself as with any evidence which may emerge from the investigation.

Esra Erduran monitors Turkey's media for the English-language Turkish Daily News in Ankara. She says Turkey's press is bitterly split into secular and Islamic camps which regard news stories like Operation Hope principally as an opportunity to discredit one another. In that effort, they often sensationalize and go beyond the facts, raising tensions which can drive political and diplomatic events.

Erduran says Operation Hope included a pair of highly emotional issues that are staples of this domestic press war. They are charges by secularists that Turkey's Islamists want an Islamic state like Iran and that Tehran supports militant Moslem groups in Turkey. Both charges are rejected by the Islamists.

The media analyst says the Turkish media's coverage of Operation Hope immediately saw the secular -- or mainstream -- press go on the offensive by leveling charges against the Islamists and Iran. And it saw the Islamic -- or Green -- press take the defensive by citing the limited nature of the evidence.

"The recent debate in the media can be seen as a sensational one because -- especially after the Hope Operation -- the mainstream newspapers preferred to write stories and cover the issue from the sensational [point of view], not giving the factual developments. But the Green media were trying to give more detailed information, giving the name of the source and trying to be objective [out of fear] that they might be accused again of [supporting] a Sharia [Islamic legal] order in Turkey."

Such press battles have raged fiercely in Turkey since the 1990s, when state monopolies were eased to allow greater privatization of the media. The result was a boom in Islamist broadcasting and publishing, particularly at the community level. Today, the Islamist media directly challenges the mainstream media, which backs Turkey's secular establishment.

But if Turkey's press wars are waged in an emotional whirlwind of charges and counter-charges, it remains uncertain how much they actually sway Turkish public opinion. Analysts say that most Turkish readers view the country's newspapers as espousing the beliefs of their owners and have little trust in their objectivity. Erduran says that skepticism is reflected both in low circulation figures and in a growing taste for soft television news shows, which concentrate more on celebrities than politicians.

"Turkey is a huge country with a population of over 60 million and the largest-selling paper is selling a million [copies] daily. And according to a survey conducted by the communications faculty of Ankara University, the majority of Turkish people do not believe what the papers write. They prefer to watch television, and the television news hours' stories about the heart-throbs of the country, pin-up girls and violent scenes [where] the event is not important but the scenes [that is, images] are important."

That means other countries reading Turkey's press, and alarmed by the charges in it, might do well to do what Turkish readers do -- take it all with a pinch of salt.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ismail Cem apparently told Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi very much the same thing at the height of this spring's diplomatic crisis. When Kharrazi criticized the Turkish press, Cem is reported to have replied that Turkey is a democratic country with media freedom, and state officials have no control over press reports.