Istanbul and the battle for truth

17 October 2008

Dear friends of ESI,

We are very happy to be able to announce that the 10th film in our documentary series Balkan Express – Return to Europe on Europe's biggest city, Istanbul, will be broadcast on German/Austrian/Swiss TV channel 3sat this coming Sunday:

Türkei – Aufbruch am Bosporus (in German)

3sat - 19 October 21:00

Modern Istanbul Modern Istanbul

All 10 films in our series have now been completed; 9 have been broadcast. Last week the documentary series received the prestigious Erasmus European Media Award.

This last film explores the beauty of Istanbul as well as the tensions which lie just underneath the surface of this glittering town. How has Istanbul coped with the transformation of a city of 1 into a city of 12 million inhabitants within two generations? How are people dealing with its complicated multiethnic past? How can one overcome the bitter power struggle between new and old elites, the secular and the religious? And what place is there for Islam in a Turkey that seeks to join the European Union?

The Bosporus

To answer these questions we visit recent migrants from Anatolia; talk to women who discover the freedom of urban life; visit the first public shelter in Turkey with the only female deputy mayor in all Istanbul; try to shed light on the deep state with the lawyer of murdered Armenian journalist Hrant Dink; and talk to a committed Kemalist, who considers a possible military coup a "chirurgical operation".

Murat Belge, one of Turkey's leading liberal intellectuals, takes us on a tour through the past and present of Istanbul. At the end we hope to understand why modern Turkey is "a society that specializes in forgetting rather than remembering" … and why at this very moment this might be about to change.

Murat Belge (Liberal)  Celal Sengor (Kemalist)

Murat Belge (Liberal)

Celal Sengor (Kemalist)

You can see the beginning of the Turkey film online: in the German version and in the English/Turkish one. To see the whole film you can do three things: Turn on 3Sat this Sunday! Wait until the documentary series will (hopefully) be broadcast in your country (certainly in Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro). Or go to in a few weeks to find out where you can order DVDs in German or English with all 10 films.

Perihan Magden Yasemin Congar

Perihan Magden

Yasemin Congar

New on Rumeli Observer: the military and freedom of speech in Turkey

Turkey and its taboos, the role of the military and the danger of speaking truth to power are all issues at the heart of our Istanbul film. We also explore them in two long interviews published on Rumeli Observer.

First we meet Turkish writer Perihan Magden. She is the author of "Two Girls", a novel about a love affair between two teenage girls in Istanbul which takes place against the background of a series of mysterious murders. Magden is also one of the most respected political columnists in the country. Explaining the problems Turkey faces today she points to the military:

"The army is supposed to be our saviour and protector forever and ever. You cannot question their powers. They have no accountability. No one can ask questions about their budgets. Their status is that of kings in the Middle Ages. The status of the army is a big problem of Turkey. It is our biggest obstacle on the path to real democracy."

Madgen pays a prize for her outspokenness: she has a number of court cases running against her (as well as two convictions, currently under appeal) for articles she has written, and spends a lot of her time in courts.

Rumeli Observer also features Yasemin Congar, the young deputy editor of liberal daily Taraf. Congar explains the ideas behind Taraf, Taraf's recent scoops and the ongoing Ergenekon investigation:

"We know that there have been murders in this country – prominent journalists, judges, politicians – and some of these cases have not been solved. And now we see the traces, the clues about a certain involvement of this organisation, which is now named Ergenekon, in all these murders and attacks. It is perhaps bigger than we now realize."

Even today truly independent journalism remains risky in Turkey:

"You have to take risks. First of all, if you attempt to break taboos, there will be court cases against you. You will be called to testify at the prosecutor's office many times which happens to all of us in journalism. And then, perhaps you will be convicted in some of these cases, and also, as in Hrant Dink's case, your life might be in danger.

So there are risks, but that is also changing. Ten years ago the Kurdish question was still a taboo. We were talking about it but not as openly as we do now. The Armenian question was still a big taboo; the word 'genocide' was not used as often as it is now. I and others use it and we basically get away with it. At least there is the discussion whether what happened in 1915 was a genocide or not in Turkey now. The military is always a taboo, but now we are criticizing it. We can tell the military to get out of politics and to do its job. Yes, we might be tried for it, but we are still doing it."

In fact, just this week the chief of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, Ilker Basbug, openly and strongly criticized Taraf for publishing documents that shed a bad light on the operations of the Turkish military in South East Anatolia. Read more on

Award ceremony for the Grand Award for

Winning the Erasmus European Media Award 2008

Return to Europe presentations

It appears that it is possible to turn the analysis of a think tank into good television. Now we hope to share this experience as widely as possible!

Films from the Return to Europe series have recently been presented at an international conference ESI co-organised in Barcelona, as well as in Brussels and Berlin. More presentations are scheduled this year, beginning in Tirana (this weekend), Budapest, Brussels, Belgrade, Berlin and Vienna. We are also working with PreTV and ERSTE Foundation in Vienna to make as much of the output of this project available on our website

Many best wishes from Istanbul,

Gerald Knaus

Gerald Knaus

Gerald Knaus