Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Spiegel affair

by Sune Haugbolle.

On Saturday the German magazine Der Spiegel published an article claiming that Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigators believe Hizbollah is linked to the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The article quotes an unnamed person close to the tribunal for saying that there is now hard evidence, in the form of a number of connected cell phones belonging to the perpetrators of the killing and key Hizbollah members, that the Oerpational Unit of the Shiite organization organised the crime.  

I tend to think that the timing of this leak alone is fishy, and I am not convinced that the story is real. But who is to say in a world of Arab politics shrouded in truths and lies. Either way you look at it, the Spiegel article is remarkable. There seems to be two possibilities. Either we are dealing with a terrible truth, shocking to Lebanese as well as to outside observers (me included) and diplomats, which must surely be dodged politically lest Lebanon is to be thrown into sectarian and military turmoil. Part of that truth could also be that the Party of God is split to an extent that one part of the organization acts independently. That is speculation of cause. It is also pure speculation to start thinking about which regional power must have been involved. It is hard not to speculate, though, and people are speculating massively as I am writing this, inside and outside Lebanon, and in the blogosphere of course. For some, the Speigel story is nothing more than a confirmation of earlier suspicions. Hizbollah’s detractors have brought up that the car used for the killing came from the Dahiya, which suggests that Hizbollah must have had some knowledge of the operation.

The second possibility is that we are dealing with a partial or full fabrication, as Hizbollah officials and associated media in Lebanon have suggested today.

There have been suggestions that Der Spiegel could have links to Israeli security services, or at least israeli sympathies. Even if the story turns out to be a fabrication somehow accepted by the editorial board of the Spiegel magazine – who must have known that they were dealing with explosive stuff and therefore presumably made sure that the source was trustworthy – and the magazine is forced to withdraw the story, the mechanisms of public life in Lebanon will make sure that a new “truth” about Hariri death, rivaling the narrative of a Syrian plot which many have favoured to this day, has been born. A truth, conspiracy theory or not, will take on a life of its own, circulate, be verified, preached to the converts, and perhaps used politically. Those who have axes to grind against the Party of God, and they are many, will grind their axes happily. None more so than the segments of the Sunni community, which have been locked in street battles with Shiites in West Beirut several times in recent years. The Druze who clashed with Hizbollah last May in the Shouf also have grudges and scores to settle. 

First reactions from Jumblatt and Hariri suggest that the leaders of these groups are very aware that whether true or not the Truth must now be contained. Jumblatt even evoked (for God knows which time) the specter of Ayn al-Rumaneh and a new civil war. IF –and that is a big if in my opinion – the leak turns out to be some kind of media strategy from the Tribunal, in an attempt to prepare the world for the terrible Truth, rather than presenting it out of the blue once the hearing begin in earnest next year, it is possible that the story will blow over for now but then suddenly reappear as the real thing. A worrisome scenario. Let’s all really really hope that this is baloney, German style.   

AN AWFUL LOT MUST BE HAPPENING AROUND THE CLOCK IN TURKEY

By Daniella Kuzmanovic

According to the Turkish newspaper Posta (May 23, 2009) the famous, or notorious depending on who one asks, singer, entertainer and TV star Ibrahim Tatlıses intends to establish a national news channel in Turkey. The name will be either ‘Tempo Haber’ (Tempo News) or ‘Haber 63’ (News 63). Tatlıses’ business interests are widespread and include among other entertainment, food, transport, hotels and a music TV station. Tatlıses has apparently applied to the Turkish national Radio and Television Board (RTÜK) in order to obtain a broadcasting license for his news station.

Judging from numbers, establishing a news channel has become quite the thing to do in Turkey during the past decade. The first 24 hour national news channel, NTV, was launched in 1996. Today there are around ten TV channels that can be considered as national news channels, including CNNTürk and Haber Türk. In addition, all major national channels such as the private ATV, Show, or Kanal D and public TRT have extensive news coverage as part of their daily programs. The various national news channels seem to represent both a variety of business interests, and a variety of political-ideological outlooks. Turkish media market is dominated by a few large holding companies, which each have one or more news station in their portfolio. Moreover, the various channels represent various ideological outlooks ranging from right-wing nationalist, Kemalist, conservative, pro-Islamic to liberal. If Turkey’s biggest star should not then have his own news channel, who should?

Considering that the population of Turkey is approximately 72 million around ten news channels is quite a lot. Turkey actually rivals the US when it comes to the number of national news channels. So, either one can conclude that a lot must be happening around the clock in Turkey, and that Turks are unusually interested in socio-political affairs; or one can suspect that the bouquet of news channels reflect something else. Turkey does have its fair share of events and happenings but not more so than other countries. That Turks should be unusually interested in socio-political affairs would also be hard to sustain, given that social scientists have pointed to the general lack of interest in politics in the traditional sense, i.e. party politics, national political debates etc. This is particularly predominant among youth (the median age of Turkey is under 30). The lack of interest in traditional politics stems, among other, from the conscious depoliticization of Turkish society in the wake of the 12th of September coup (1980) – which made associating with the realm of politics into something bound to cause you trouble – a lack of being able to identify with the current political establishment in Turkey dominated by elderly males, but also reflects a general trend in youth culture across the globe, where leisure, consumption and entertainment has moved to the foreground.

Thus, the many news channels in Turkey must presumably be explained along other lines. As I am not an expert on financial or holding company strategies I will refrain from speculations as to the advertising money a ‘Tatlıses branded’ news channel could attract, or how holding companies within the entertainment industry spread their investments. This undoubtedly also plays into Tatlıses’ interest in establishing a news channel. But it has also been pointed out by some of the comments on Tatlıses’ new endeavor that he is bound to loose money on this adventure. Hence, other reasons, which are not solely economic, must be taken into consideration. One of these reasons is the perception of possessing power, which is associated with being one of the major players within the media industry in Turkey. And if anything owning a 24 hour news channel on top of all one’s other media interests signals an intention to be a ‘media tycoon’ and thereby influence the socio-political and economic agenda of the country. As mentioned Turkish media is dominated by a few large holding companies. The biggest of those is the Doğan group, which of course has a news channel in their portfolio (CNNTürk). So does the Çukorova group (Sky Türk), the Doğuş group (NTV), the Feza / Samanyolu group (Samanyolu haber), Ihlas holding (TGRT haber) etc. Turkuvaz being a notable exception but they do own the prominent TV station ATV and Sabah newspaper. Also state-owned TRT has a news channel (TRT2).

There is an on-going controversy between the Doğan group and the Turkish government. The Doğan group is known to be anti-AKP, and is presumed to use its stronghold in Turkish media to oppose the government. Doğan has become involved in an enormous tax case. Earlier this year the holding company was fined for tax evasion and ordered to pay around half a billion dollars. Doğan has of course dismissed the case as being a government led attempt to crack down on opposition. The case clearly indicates the kind of power media is perceived to have in Turkey, and also indicates that media are not considered to be relegating objective news but are rather seen as stake-holders in on-going political-ideological clashes in the country. The media sector is not only characterized by being in the hands of few holding companies. Moreover these holding companies support various political-ideological segments of society, and make sure that all kind of media including newspapers, TV, radio and publishing houses are available to the particular segment they cater.

Tatlıses can, hence, write a new page in the history of the poor migrant from Urfa who became one of Turkey’s biggest stars because of his ‘sweet voice,’ developed into a business tycoon, and then attempted to run for parliament. Now he attempts to add new aspects to the public perception of him as a man of power by moving into the serious part of the media market. Of course, this apparent move has immediately been met with a range of joking comments as to who will be news anchors in this new channel, including suggestions of fellow arabesk music stars or the oriental dancer Tatlıses has had an affair with and who has featured in his TV shows.

Finally insights into the judicial culture in Turkey

By Daniella Kuzmanovic

The judiciary in Turkey tends to have a statist, Kemalist bias. The judiciary in Turkey has traditionally never been considered objective by the Turkish public at large. Rather they have been viewed as representatives of particular perspectives, outlooks and worldviews, most notably that of the statist, Kemalist elite but also to some extent of right-wing nationalists. Two highly interesting reports came out yesterday from Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), which substantiate such claims. The first report analyses data from 51 qualitative interviews with judges and prosecutors (12 women and 39 men) from four various provinces in Turkey (Ankara, Istanbul, Diyarbakır and Trabzon). This report illustrates how people within the system are inclined to articulate and also rule on the basis of the worldview of the statist elite. The second report analyses data from 59 qualitative interviews with people from 20 provinces in Turkey (18 of the respondents are from Kars, though, and many other provinces are only represented by a single or two respondents) about their views on and possible experiences with the judiciary. One of the main conclusions of this report is that people perceive the judiciary as if it is a government agency, and that the courts do not display equal treatment for all citizens.

The reason for the reports is of course that public trust in the integrity, independence and impartiality of the judiciary is a backbone with regard to the development of a democratic culture in Turkey. At present, however, controversial cases and rulings are always debatable by reference to the political outlook of the prosecutors and judges, who have been involved in the case. Every time a case is discussed in public the key question being asked is always who is handling the case – meaning who as in what are the supposed political ideological stances of the particular persons involved, what segment do they belong to? High profiled cases are politicized from the outset. The on-going Ergenekon investigation is a case in point. The accused and their political supporters claim that the Ergenekon network is pure fantasy, a case initiated by the AKP government in order to clamp down on its ideological enemies within the statist elite. On the other hand, other segments of Turkish society welcome the attempts of the judiciary to confront those within the statist elite who think they have the right to act outside the boundaries of the law in the interest of the nation. Another spectacular case from recent times is the Şemdinli bombing case – that is the case investigating the bombing of a Kurdish bookstore in 2005, where it turned out that it had been carried out by persons associated with the Turkish gendarmerie special unit although they had attempted to make it look as if the bombing was done by PKK. During the investigation, as the prosecutor attempted to investigate how high up the system the order had come from hence implicating senior security personnel, he was suddenly suspended from his duty and later fired. On top of that are closure cases against political parties, prosecutions against civic actors, intellectuals, journalists and so forth.

The first of the two reports dealing with the outlook of the judges and prosecutors, among other, emphasizes two aspects of the prevalent outlook. One is that judges and prosecutors tend to be in line with the traditional Kemalist, statist elite regarding the idea that their prime obligation is the protection of the interests of the state, i.e. downplaying the rights of the citizen as the pivotal point of the justice system. The other is a ‘nationalist reflex’ to express suspicion towards Turkish integration with the outside world, here expressed through a fear of what the prevalence given to international law due to a change in article 90 of the Turkish constitution implies to the legal system in Turkey and the ability to protect national interests. The judges even seem to express reluctance to abide to the present article’s underlining of how international law must be given prevalence. Here one only has to recall the former President of the republic, Ahmet Necdet Sezer. He, if any, embodied the kind of outlook which the report from TESEV concerns itself with. Sezer was chief justice of the Constitutional Court before he became president in 2000. While residing in Çankaya, the official residence of the president in Ankara, Sezer went out of his way to defend the secular order of Turkey, which implied constant clashes with the AKP government. He indeed perceived himself as protecting the Turkish state and state principles. In a similar vein he also expressed the classic fear of the statist elite of undermining Turkish national sovereignty if the integration with the outside world is not strictly controlled. Sezer, among other, was known to be skeptical of the extent of privatizations of state owned companies taking place in Turkey and the increased role of foreign capital investments.

http://www.tesev.org.tr/UD_OBJS/PDF/DEMP/Yargi1_07_05_09WEB.pdf

http://www.tesev.org.tr/UD_OBJS/PDF/DEMP/Yargi2_SON_web07_05_09.pdf

One man shouting in a corner

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

The candidates against Ahmadinejad in the upcoming Iranian elections are so far Mir-Hossein Musavi, Mehdi Karrubi and – since last week – Mohsen Reza‘i, a ‘moderate conservative’. However there is one more interesting yet overlooked candidate: Akbar A‘lami, the most outspoken critic of the power establishment to run for presidency. Yesterday, A‘lami blasted ‘the power mafia’ of Iran in an extremely harsh fashion.


A‘lami is a former MP of Tabriz. On his personal website and throughout his political life, he has always emphasizes the fact that he is an Azeri representing Tabriz. Yet A‘lami himself grew up in the poor southern part of Tehran, and as a teenager, he worked odd jobs, driving busses, painting buildings etc. In his very frank and detailed autobiography, A‘lami explains that he was not a good student and that he didn’t even pray. However at some stage, he entered an Islamic study circle, through which he finally found interest in studying and praying. This interest led him from the holy books and leaders over to role models such as Ali Shariati and Khosrow Golsorkhi, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. With this interest came political activities – a part of his life A‘lami describes as ‘from pilot academy to guerilla activities aimed at reaching utopia or nowhere?!’.

A‘lami quit training to become a pilot when he realized this line of work would prevent him from political activities, and instead he was drafted as a soldier and stationed in Kerman and Esfahan. When Khomeini issued a fatwa for resisting the shah’s regime, A‘lami fled his military base and went into hiding while the police interrogated his father. Together with a friend who had been trained in guerilla warfare in Lebanon, A‘lami created a ‘political-cultural armed cell’ that participated in the Islamic Revolution. A‘lami was wounded in battles with the Shah’s forces but was treated by a kind doctor (who, A‘lami laments, was later forced by the ignorance of radicals to flee Iran for the US).

So far, A‘lami’s biography is pretty standard stuff for Iranian politicians. But it differs in one fundamental way: A‘lami writes that while he fought for the revolution, he did not know that one day, the revolution would fall into the hands of ‘the likes of Jennati’. Ayatollah Jennati is a powerful cleric and head of the Guardians Council in Iran. He is a hardliner and an outspoken supporter of president Ahmadinejad. A‘lami writes that in the early days of the revolution, there was no such thing as ‘left and right wing’, ‘reformist and principlist’ – indeed, this was before the days of ‘baseless political godfathers of various factions’, he writes, obviously criticizing the political elites of contemporary Iran.

Despite “fraud” and despite a very meager financial basis, A‘lami won an unprecedented majority of votes in the Tabriz area, and as a reformist candidate he entered what he sarcastically calls “the institution known as the People’s House” in 1999. A‘lami continued for nine years as an MP known for stinging attacks on the conservatives, until “the lords who seek prosperity on earth” questioned his beliefs in and pledge to Islam. In other words, despite his nine years as an MP, the Guardians Council rejected A’lami’s candidacy before the 2008 parliamentary elections. Like so many other candidates, this unelected council found that A‘lami was not sufficiently loyal to Islam and the Islamic Republic.

Now, A‘lami has declared his intentions to run for president. It is far from certain that he will be accepted and allowed to run. Yet his case deserves attention since he represents those seeking change within a political system that does not accept or tolerate them – those who are more reformist than ‘the reformists’. Yesterday, A‘lami spoke in the city of Orumiye in Western Iran, and his views were presented.

He began his speech with congratulating the audience with Teachers Week and International Workers Day, and thus praising two segments of the Iranian society who are currently mobilizing protests and are witnessing widespread government repression. A‘lami spoke in Azeri Turkic which is still rather unusual for politicians in Iran. He then went on to criticize “the media boycott” against him, and the fact that both foreign and domestic media only reports on the activities of Ahmadinejad, Musavi, Karrubi and Rezai. He blasted the authorities for preventing him from speaking before public audiences, even in mosques. If the constitution were put into action without discrimination, argued A‘lami, it would lower discontent in the population that once voted for this same political system, which is now repressing them.

A‘lami argued that “freedom, independence and territorial integrity” are three basic elements that cannot be separated: “[No-one], not even The Leader, the President or the Parliament have the right to take away the nation’s legitimate freedoms when introducing a law or even on the excuse of protecting the country’s independence and territorial integrity”, stated A‘lami; indeed, the people should use all “civil methods” to fight for their rights against any authority that tries to take away their rights. Iran belongs to all people, no matter ethnicity and tribal loyalties, race, language, etc., argued A‘lami, and stated that people should be allowed to use “local and ethnic languages” in press, media and in teaching local literatures in public schools alongside the teaching of Persian.

The slogan behind A‘lami is in Azeri and reads something along the lines of “As long as my mother exists – my mother tongue will persevere”

The latter claim is a rather sensitive one in Iran, where Persians are only about half of the population, the other half consisting of various ethnic groups such as Azeris like A‘lami, Kurds, Lur, Arabs, Baluch, Turkmen etc. The question of language – and in particular, the right to teach the mother tongue in ethnic minority areas – has recently become a crucial topic to some ethnically aware Iranians. It is also a topic with which A‘lami, in the position of representative for an Azeri-majority area, has been occupied. A‘lami was outspoken in his defense of the protestors during the Tabriz unrest of 2006, when Azeris poured into the streets to protest a racist cartoon ridiculing Turkic-speakers in a state-run daily – and at the same time, to demand respect for their indigenous culture and language in a country dominated by Persian language. A‘lami even threatened, during an interview, to beat up a journalist who insisted that the unrest was a conspiracy against Iran guided from abroad. In parliament, conservatives blasted A‘lami for his ‘anti-Iranian’ statements.

However, the most sensitive topic of A‘lami’s speech was that of the political system and the role of The Leader. A‘lami stated that erroneous interpretations of this system would endow The Leader with powers well beyond the abilities of one person and well beyond legal prerogatives. A‘lami stated that “as long as power is in the hands of a collection of some 200-300 persons, who have shifted power around amongst themselves since the revolution, and have taken 70 million Iranians as their hostages … change is impossible and the situation is becoming worse day by day”. A‘lami called both “the reformist and conservative gangs” for “a handful of professional policy-players” who are simply hungry for power and will dress up in new clothes anytime in order to cling to this power.

They are all the same, A‘lami argued, and they have all participated in repressing the people and their freedoms. They are monopolists and totalitarians, and they see religion and notions of democracy as mere instruments with which they can gain power. “70 million Iranians are caught in the political games of this power mafia”, A‘lami proclaimed, and with its complete control of the country, it has made people believe that there are no-one more suited for the job than the mafia itself.

Indeed, A‘lami recently posed a crucial question to all candidates for this year’s presidential elections: What would you do if you were faced with a State Decree by Ayatollah Khamene‘i? Would you comply or would you resist it? This question concerns the very problem of being a president of a country which is in effect run by a Leader and a couple of unelected, clerical bodies. A‘lami represents those who still believe in the potential of the Islamic Revolution to bring about justice and freedom, but who will not accept the rules laid out before politicians by unelected political elites, who have been running Iran for the last thirty years.

A‘lami will probably never be allowed to run for president, and he will most certainly not be allowed to become one. Yet, among the candidates, he is so far the bravest and most outspoken critic of the arbitrary political system and the abuse of power so prevalent in Iran today.