The military coup in Turkey on July 15 was the fifth coup in the last five decades. But unlike previous coups, Friday’s experience was a turning point in Turkey’s history. Despite intense political differences and division within the country, Turks—regardless of their political parties—united in choosing democracy over military intervention. Two women at the helm of the main free and independent media company in Turkey played a critical role in ensuring that the voice of democracy took precedence at this crucial time. In addition, it was a woman journalist who ensured that the Turkish president’s voice was heard on national television at the height of the coup attempt—a truly historic moment.
Intense political differences exist between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party (AKP), socially conservative with religious undertones, and opposition parties concerned about the president’s encroachments on democratic values, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press, as well as his efforts to change the constitution to consolidate his power. Despite their differences, those opposition parties united on Friday in the midst of the coup, choosing to stand with the democratically elected president in the face of military intervention. At the peak of intense bombing throughout Istanbul and Ankara, during which the country’s chief of staff was taken hostage, all leading political opposition parities denounced the military coup.
One of the first acts of the coup’s organizers was to take over Turkish State Television and read their declaration of a coup. As a result, confusion and silence dominated the response of most Turkish media outlets. But not for Hande Firat, bureau chef of CNN Turk in Ankara, who called state officials and the president’s office to learn what was happening from the government’s point of view. Her persistence and commitment to journalism allowed her to communicate with Erdogan directly and, with his approval, to convey his message on CNN Turk via FaceTime, asking the Turkish public to rise up against the coup.
— CNN Türk ENG (@CNNTURK_ENG) July 15, 2016
CNN Turk is part of Dogan Media Group, which is led by four sisters, including Arzuhan Dogan Yalcindag, CEO of CNN Turk, and Vuslat Dogan Sabanci, chairwoman of Hurriyet, one of the country’s leading newspapers. Both CNN Turk and the Hurriyet offices were taken over by the organizers of the coup shortly after Erdogan appeared on the airwaves of CNN Turk. CNN was off the air for half an hour and Hurriyet.com was also taken offline.
As resistance erupted from the demonstrators who took to the streets in response to Erdogan’s message, the same group of people who attacked the offices of CNN Turk and Hurriyet eight months ago to protest their coverage of Erdogan went to defend the media outlets. One of the demonstrators was overheard commenting on which door could be broken into, based on his experience of attacking that same office last October, according to a source who asked not to be identified.
— CNN Türk ENG (@CNNTURK_ENG) July 16, 2016
Over the last ten years, Dogan Media has been targeted regularly for its independent journalism. Last October, Ahmed Hakan, a leading CNN Turk and Hurriyet journalist, was physically attacked in front of his home by mobs suspected to be part of AKP’s youth organization. Around the same time, Hurriyet’s headquarters suffered two separate attacks by the same suspected mobs. The media group has also faced numerous lawsuits on charges including tax evasion, corruption, and even terrorism, which are seen as institutional harassment of the free media. But on Friday, the same media group sided with the democratically elected government and Erdogan. In addition to Dogan Media, other opposition media as well as leaders of opposition parties unanimously sided with democracy.
This was a historic moment that showed Turks’ unity in prioritizing democratic values over internal disagreements. Turks now have an opportunity to enjoy a newfound solidarity, regardless of their political differences. How that solidarity is used from now on is of utmost importance in paving a new path to bring the country together. Whatever the Turkish government chooses to do in handling the aftermath of this coup, it must protect the free and independent press, as well as the independent judiciary, as the foundation and pillar of Turkish democracy. I hope it will also address the divisive politics that has polarized the society. After Friday’s failed coup and the demonstrations showing solidarity and commitment to democratic values, unity and inclusion must take on a new meaning in Turkey for its own well being, its future, and the future of the region, where some countries have sacrificed their freedom and democratic rights in supporting military regimes.
The government must not overlook the message of unity from the Turkish people in the midst of any post-coup actions or reactions in addressing the causes of the coup. And while the world is talking about the role of CNN Turk, we must not overlook the women behind the scenes of this historic moment.
Watch a panel on the fearless women of Turkey, at the Women in the World New York Summit:
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.