Cablegate: Chief Editor Speaks Candidly Amidst Newspaper's Ownership Controversy

DE RUEHIT #0225/01 1281553
P 071553Z MAY 08



E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/06/2018

REF: A. 07 ANKARA 1006
B. ANKARA 0513
C. 07 ANKARA 0778

Classified By: Consul General Sharon A. Wiener for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

1. (C) Summary and comment. Turkish daily Sabah's editor in
chief Ergun Babahan conducted a surprisingly candid tour
d'horizon with the Consul General a day after the
controversial financing of his new parent company Calik
Holding's purchase of Turkey's third most circulated
newspaper came to light. Babahan spoke frankly about the
change in ownership, US-Turkey relations and Turkish domestic
political issues, speculating AKP would ultimately lose the
closure case against it but would live on as a fragmented
movement whose followers would ultimately press the country's
democratization agenda forward after a likely two-year delay.
Claiming to be close friends with President Gul, Babahan
predicted that should PM Erdogan be forced to step down, Gul
would use his presidential powers to appoint current FM
Babacan as the new Prime Minister. Perhaps most strikingly,
he asserted Turkey would break up over the Kurdish issue
unless the government began to pay attention to the claims of
a significant portion of its citizens. End summary and

In the Eye of the Storm

2. (C) Sabah's editor-in-chief Ergun Babahan appeared
un-fazed as he spoke candidly on April 24 about the
controversial purchase of his newspaper by Calik Holding (see
paras. 9-11 for background) and the state of Turkish domestic
politics with the Consul General, whose call on him
coincidentally occurred the day after the acquisition's
financing details came to light. Babahan expects problems in
the short term, acknowledging the public perception
challenges the Calik Group's ties to the ruling Justice and
Development Party (AKP) create for the paper. The
"ownership's base doesn't match with the readership base," he
explained, describing the latter as mostly urban, middle
class, secular and afraid of AKP and its policies. Still,
Babahan believes business interests would trump political
ties in the long run and doesn't expect the new ownership to
make changes to the newspaper's staff or editorial policies.
He was not surprised to learn about Qatar's role in the
financing, pointing out the Gulf State had expressed interest
in the Sabah/ATV investment long before Calik Holding won the

3. (C) Dismissing reported allegations that the paper had
already begun demonstrating a pro-government bias while under
the control of the Turkish Savings Deposit Insurance Fund
(SDIF), Babahan asserted he had not felt any pressure on his
editorial policies. He noted his record as a columnist shows
he has always supported headscarf liberties and that he is
not necessarily pro-AKP but rather pro-democracy and against
military supremacy. Brandishing Sabah's mainstream
credentials, Babahan proudly pointed out it had dared to say
"no" to a military coup following the April 2007
"e-memorandum" (ref A). Acknowledging it was true the
newspaper doesn't criticize the government much, he proffered
that neither do its competitors. Hinting at the extreme and
often bitter competition that characterizes Sabah's
relationship with its Dogan Group rivals, Babahan argued the
Dogan media took a largely anti-headscarf stance because it
"knew what was coming," referring to the AKP closure case
(ref B).

4. (C) Asked what would happen if the Calik Group tried to
impose its government ties on Sabah's editorial policy,
Babahan responded he would try to direct the ownership in the
right direction. Pondering the challenge of such a scenario,
Babahan explained AKP is not very democratic; in Turkey, it
is not easy to run a party democratically since politicians
too frequently incur obligations to different organizations
to support their own interests. AKP does not know the media
and feels threatened by it, concluded Babahan. "In three to
four months, we'll see if we can make it together (with Calik
Holding) or not." Citing the current, volatile, domestic
political circumstances, he stressed the importance of
resisting attempts by owners to engage in a press war, as has
happened in the past, because, "in the end everyone loses."

Democracy on Hold?

ISTANBUL 00000225 002 OF 003


5. (C) Regarding the AKP closure case, Babahan believes the
Constitutional Court has likely already decided against the
ruling party. He expects PM Erdogan and 25 or so other party
members to be banned from politics but AKP followers would
succeed in the end, though probably not as a single entity.
Without Erdogan, AKP's successor would become more democratic
- and as a result, more populist/nationalistic - but also
more difficult to keep together. Other center-right
alternatives to AKP are in the works, he argued asserting
that Turkish Chamber of Commerce Chairman Rifat
Hisarciklioglu and former Prime Minister (now independent
parliamentarian) Mesut Yilmaz are trying to start new
parties. AKP will still control the presidency, and with PM
Erdogan out of the picture President Gul becomes the most
powerful figure in Turkey, with the power to appoint a new
prime minister. If it comes to this, Babahan believes Gul
would appoint current Foreign Minister Ali Babacan as PM
because he would listen to the president, is not corrupt and
would continue to pursue Turkey's EU membership.

6. (C) Babahan does not expect the AKP to hold early
Elections in response to the closure case, as some columnists
have speculated. If that were their plan, they would hold
elections immediately but they know they are losing their
(Fetullah) Gulenist base, which likely blames AKP for
antagonizing secularists by prematurely pushing through
headscarf reform. Babahan wasn't sure who Gulenists would
support if not AKP, but knew Fetullah Gulen and PM Erdogan do
not like each other. Gulen may find it easier to exert his
influence through different, smaller parties than through a
Prime Minister who "wants to monopolize power."
Characterizing Erdogan as no longer Islamist but rather a
"conservative believer," Babahan thought the two would also
differ over policy, with Gulen hoping for a more Islamic
society. "If you believe in (the literal interpretation of)
the Koran, you want as a final goal, an Islamic state,"
concluded Babahan.

7. (C) Asked whether the president was more sympathetic to
Gulen's Islamist views than the Prime Minister, Babahan
listed his "good friend" Gul's secular credentials: he is the
most "anti-Iran" political figure in Turkey; he has pushed
for EU and IMF policies; and he is known to be against the
madrassa education system. At the same time, he is a product
of the Islamic "milli gurus" youth movement, Babahan noted,
and "sometimes what you believe in youth influences what you
believe in later."

8. (C) Babahan asserted US-Turkish relations have improved
since Turkey's cross-border operation in February, which
demonstrated U.S. support for Turkey's top priority of
fighting the terrorist PKK. The man on the street previously
believed Washington supported the establishment of a Kurdish
state, Babahan explained, a perception largely resulting from
Turks mixed feelings toward the Ottoman Empire; they hate it
for its backwardness but love it for its greatness. Many
still believe western powers are trying to fragment Turkey.
Turkey will eventually break up, Babahan surmised. "We can't
continue to ignore a large chunk of the country that has a
different culture and language."


9. (SBU) Turkish media is largely controlled by a few,
competing conglomerates with a reputation for interfering in
their outlets' editorial policies. While the Dogan Group
controls the greatest share of readership, it is Sabah
newspaper and its new owner the Calik Group which has
monopolized headlines of late. The current controversy
concerning Sabah's (and television affiliate ATV's) ownership
dates back to 2002 when the SDIF seized the assets of the
newspaper's then owner Dinc Bilgin following the collapse of
Bilgin's Etibank and sold them at auction to the Ciner Group
(ref C).

10. (SBU) With a circulation exceeding 440,000, Sabah grew
to be the Dogan Group's most significant secular-oriented
rival under Ciner. Then, on April 1, 2007 the SDIF again
took control of Sabah and ATV along with the Ciner Group's
other media assets, claiming it had discovered a secret
agreement between the Ciner Group and Bilgin which illegally
permitted the latter a degree of control and ownership over
his previously seized assets. The SDIF operated Sabah and
ATV until the Calik Group purchased them at auction for $1.1

ISTANBUL 00000225 003 OF 003

billion in December 2007 in an eyebrow raising deal due to
Calik Holding's ties to AKP - its twenty-something General
Manager is married to one of PM Erdogan's daughters and
Chairman Ahmet Calik is said to be close to AKP and the Prime
Minister, himself.

11. (SBU) The Sabah/ATV sale captured headlines again on
April 23 when the Calik Group secured a combined $750 million
loan in an 11th hour deal with two public banks - Halkbank
and Vakifbank - and attracted $350 million from a little
known subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority to
complete the purchase just days before payment was due to
SDIF. Columnists speculated about the unusual nature of the
loan by the two public banks - its size and purpose is
reportedly unprecedented - and questioned whether Calik's
close ties to the government were at play. The Qatari
investment also fomented conspiracy theories as PM Erdogan
had just visited Qatar the week before. The Radio and
Television Administrative Board (RTUK), which had earlier
approved of the Calik Group's purchase of Sabah/ATV,
reportedly intends to challenge the purchase in light of the
new information concerning foreign financing.

© Scoop Media

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