Cumhuriyet’s new board sacks editor-in-chief, reverses editorial policy

The newly elected board of the Cumhuriyet foundation, the owner of Turkey's opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, sacked editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu on Saturday, pulling from the online edition Sabuncu’s editorial bidding farewell to readers.

The new board includes controversial names such as Alev Coşkun, who was alleged to have sent anonymous denunciations to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan which were used as evidence in the Cumhuriyet trials. Coşkun was also played a role as state witness against the journalists of Cumhuriyet during the trial ended in recent months. Coşkun now has become the new chair of the foundation. 

Fifteen staff members of the newspaper, including Sabuncu, were given long-prison sentences in April in the Cumhuriyet trials, during which the prosecutors claimed the newspaper aided the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish group designated as a terrorist organisation in Turkey, and the Gülen movement, followers of an Islamist preacher accused of plotting the failed July 2016 coup attempt.

“The Cumhuriyet trial is part a systematic effort to silence independent media and critical voices in Turkey to prevent public scrutiny of the government,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said following the court’s verdict. 

“It is time to leave now. History will tell the reasons why. Nobody will hear even a single word against Cumhuriyet coming from my mouth,” wrote Sabuncu, who spent 17 months of his 25 months as editor-in-chief of the newspaper in prison. 

“I am not writing this to tell you the dirt dished on us during Cumhuriyet trials, or those who played a leading role or served as extras,” Sabuncu said, in his first and last Cumhuriyet editorial.

During his term as editor-in-chief, the newspaper tried to be objective and to abide universal rules, Sabuncu said, becoming a platform to all those oppressed in Turkey without any discrimination. 

“Murat Sabuncu bid farewell to Cumhuriyet, after the change in executive board, by preserving his usual elegance,” journalist Banu Guven said on Twitter, calling Sabuncu a democrat and principled person.

Journalist İsmail Saymaz recalled that Sabuncu had the pay the price of his struggle for journalism in Cumhuriyet by being imprisoned. “Making him leave like that is something beneath Cumhuriyet,” Saymaz said.

Another journalist, Yavuz Oğhan, said that appointing Alev Çoskun, who had testified against the newspapers staff during trials, as the head of the new board was enough to expose the ''vileness'' of the latest developments.

However, the administrative change in Cumhuriyet was welcomed by those who have been criticising the newspaper for following a liberal policy, rather than sticking tightly to the values of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. 

“Cumhuriyet afresh… Now we have another reason to wake up with hope every morning,” Metin Feyzioğlu, the head of the Turkish Bar Association, said.

“Atatürk’s enlightenment revolutions form the basis of the newspaper’s editorial policy. As of today, the newspapers returns to its editorial policy the loyal readers have been wishing for,” the new board said in its statement.

The new board also sacked the newspapers managing editor, Faruk Eren, and editor Bülent Özdoğan. Columnist Aslı Aydıntaşbaş announced on Twitter that she decided to part ways with Cumhuriyet after the takeover, a move that is likely to be followed by many other Cumhuriyet contributors.