ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A journalist’s fable portraying the Turkish military as a spoilt, overfed dog has provoked a rare show of unity by top generals and the Prime Minister seen by many as their nemesis.
“This is an individual whose pen always drips with filth,” Erdogan said of columnist Bekir Coskun, whose account of a privileged military that puts comfort and security before freedom drew on a fable from ancient Greek writer Aesop.
Erdogan has radically cut back the power of a military that toppled four governments in the last five decades. Hundreds of serving and retired officers face accusations of coup plots in trials unthinkable only a few years ago for a long-privileged army that kept politicians on a short leash.
Writing in the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper at the end of April, Coskun retold the ancient Greek story with a twist by naming the tame dog “Pasha”, the honorary Ottoman title given to generals and to secular state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
“I think the Pashas should now seek legal redress over this matter,” said Erdogan, who himself once sued a cartoonist who had depicted him as a cat.
Some 100 journalists are currently in jail in Turkey, attracting international criticism of the European Union candidate’s record on freedom of expression. The government says few of them are in jail due to what they have written.
The army has also issued a statement attacking writers who undermine or provoke the army, saying they abused freedom of expression.
“Some writers...cheaply poured scorn on a military title carried by soldiers including our Eternal Chief Commander Gazi Mustafa Kemal Ataturk,” the general staff statement said.
Army statements once carried enormous weight. Declarations could shape government policy or even undermine prime ministers, but the military have now become less inclined to react publicly to criticism or, of late, the prosecution of those in its ranks.
An avowed admirer of Ataturk, Coskun’s allegorical tale appeared to be passing comment on the current crop of generals who have been brought to heel by Erdogan.
The piece was published at a particularly sensitive time. Last month, police began arresting officers allegedly responsible for pressuring Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, to resign in 1997.
Erdogan was a member of Erbakan’s party.
Hundreds of military officers, including former chief of staff General Ilker Basbug, are already on trial over their alleged role in conspiracies against Erdogan, whose AKP first swept to power in 2002.
Relations between Erdogan and the military have been fraught. After the AKP won a third consecutive election last year, four top commanders quit in protest over the conduct of investigations into their comrades.
Their resignations cleared the way for Erdogan to appoint General Necdet Ozel as armed forces chief. Since his appointment there appears to have been less friction despite state prosecutors ramping up their pursuit of suspected coup-makers.
Coskun appeared to allude to this transformation in the relationship in his reworking of Aesop’s tale about a hungry wolf who admires a well-fed, groomed dog, Pasha, sitting in his hut.
The dog invites the wolf to join him in his comfortable life. But when he learns of the collar the dog must wear, the wolf leaves, saying the loss of freedom is too high a price to pay for a life of comfort.
Coskun defended his piece in an interview with broadcaster CNN Turk on Wednesday night.
“The article had some benefits in that it made the prime minister appear like a Kemalist...and I reconciled the Turkish Armed Forces and the government,” Coskun said.
“Me and my family are under threat at the moment. How can a prime minister make a writer a target?” he said.
Media representatives criticized the responses by the army and Erdogan to the column, with the Contemporary Journalists Association (CGD) calling on the army to respect press freedom.
“Journalists, writers and the press generally in our country already live under conditions of government pressure and severe self-censorship. General Staff intervention shouldn’t be added to that,” said CGD chairman Ahmet Abakay.
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore