Friday, November 21, 2008
International 1001 Documentary Film Festival, Istanbul 12.-14.11.2008
International 1001 Documentary Film Festival website
AHMET THE GREEDY AND TURKEY’S MEDIA WAR
I step out of the airport bus into the Taksim central square. The scent of roasted chestnuts lingers in the air. Everything feels and smells familiar. It’s almost like I’d been here just a moment ago. It is, however, nearly two years since we shot in Istanbul for our film Shadow of the Holy Book. Alongside Tehran in Iran, this is one of those places I never thought I’d end up with the finished film, so sensitive it is from both of the countries perspective.
The long and deep neighbourly relations tie the histories of Turkey and Turkmenistan together. Turkmenistan’s late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov wrote the Ruhnama book (The Book of the Soul), through which he ruled and oppressed his people. In their greed Western companies translated the book into their own languages in order to get hold of the wondrous business opportunities. The megalomaniac Niyazov was flattered by the requests to translate the book. The new translations caressed his “artistic soul” and also gave new ammunition to oppress the opposition: all the letters praising the Ruhnama sent by companies were published in the media and read out, for example, in the news. Therefore an image was created for the people of Turkmenistan that the whole world stands behind Niyazov’s dictatorship.
The Turkish businessman Ahmet Chalik was the conductor of the propaganda orchestra and became Niyazov’s closest business partner, and even a minister in Niyazov’s government. Ahmet didn’t have to try to replace the Caliph, as while working as Niyazov’s and the Ruhnama’s shadow he became even more influential than Niyazov himself. Ahmet fed into Niyazov’s vanity and megalomania, and managed to secure a lasting place in the dictator’s heart. He pioneered, for example, the translation of Ruhnama into different languages, gave a statue of the Ruhnama book to Niyazov as a birthday present, and proposed the name-change of calendar months according to Niyazov’s relatives and the Ruhnama. Ahmet’s power and business activites grew in Turkmenistan at the same rate as Niyazov’s madness. From the textile and cotton industry Ahmet expanded out into the construction industry and finally into the gas and oil industry.
Saparmurat Niyazov and Ahmet Chalik studying construction plans
Now that the power structure has changed in Turkmenistan, the new leader Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov hasn’t managed to get rid of Chalik, even though he has skilfully cleared out Niyazov’s close circle from around him. Ahmet’s power is so significant, that the new president has to tolerate him. Chalik, for example, features in the new China-Turkmenistan gas pipeline deal as a third party. Right alongside the states.
When we started researching Chalik’s activities around 3 years ago, he was not very well known by the Turkish people. He was one of Turkey’s richest people, but still managed to avoid publicity skilfully. All of Turkey’s political quarters wanted Ahmet’s backup and support, and finally he was won over by Turkey’s current Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s AKP party. Just like in the Chalik-Niyazov scenario, Chalik has become a close friend of Erdogan as well as the Turkish President Abdullah Gül. At the end of 2007 Chalik and Erdogan made a big move. With the Prime Minister’s support Chalik bought Turkey’s second largest media complex, ATV-Sabah, which includes a TV-channel (ATV), radio channel (Radio City), 5 newspapers, headed by one of Turkey’s biggest (Sabah) and 10 magazines. The sale price for the media complex was suspiciously low and rumours circulated about the Prime Minister having manoeuvred the low price as well as the bank guarantees for the sale. In other words, the ruling political party grabbed a large chunk of Turkey’s media power and Chalik was made into a media mogul. In September 2008 the Prime Minister caused a scandal by advising people to boycott the opposition media. Now Ahmet is certainly known is Istanbul.
Chalik-owned newspapers and magazines
However, people are still not aware of Ahmet’s activities in Turkmenistan. That’s where he made his riches by questionable means, is now buying power with it in his own country and the whole of Central Asia. Ahmet’s story is part of our film Shadow of the Holy Book. He is the films so-called “bad boy”, or at least a counterforce to the democratisation fighters. International 1001 Documentary Film Festival has made a courageous move by selecting the film, and especially as the festival’s Opening Film. I wait for the audience reactions with great interest. Ahmet Chalik and the Prime Minister Erdogan have also been invited to the screening.
Opening ceremony audience at the 1001 festival
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is also holding a meeting with Erdogan. The meeting’s most important agenda is collaboration in the energy sphere. The planned gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Turkey and through to Europe is undoubtedly on the list of issues. Ahmet, of course, has a significant role in the project. In private discussions experiences on media ownership and the ruling and manipulating of people are bound to be shared. This is something that the media mogul Berlusconi has long-term experience in, and without his media power he would have never become a Prime Minister. I wonder whether Ahmet will take part in the discussions – or if he’s perhaps travelling in Turkmenistan or China.
Shadow of the Holy Book on the pages of Hürriyet with Erdogan and Berlusconi
The right-wing opposition newspaper Hürriyet wrote ambitiously about our film in advance. The journalist behind the article, Ersin Kalkan, has been brave in his writings and the state has charged him on nearly 30 accounts for “insulting Turkishness” according to the 301. article in the criminal law. Ersin has tackled the criminal cases victoriously, but has also received a lot of intimidation and blackmail. The Sabah newspaper, owned by Ahmet Chalik, also tried to buy him out and join their editorial team. The paycheck would have been much heftier than the current one. Ersin, however, was not to be bought and silenced. He does not want to sell himself to the new media mogul.
Journalist Ersin Kalkan and director Arto Halonen at the 1001 festival's opening ceremony
The festival is overshadowed by sad news. A remarkable documentary director and active member of the Documentary Filmmakers Association has suddenly passed away two days prior. The colleagues carry the director’s photograph around their necks, thereby honouring him and his meritorious work. The opening ceremony therefore features sorrow as well as joy. The Association of Documentary Filmmakers in Turkey, responsible for the festival’s organisation, awards Shadow of the Holy Book with the Honorary Recognition. To my surprise the final applause is also vibrant. Ahmet and Erdogan cannot be seen in the audience, and their support troops remain silent. The feedback is supportive and the film is praised for its encouraging effect. There is a will to make the Turkish people aware of Ahmet Chalik’s activities. A director working for Chalik’s ATV-channel feels embarrassed. He asks for a copy of the film for the opposition MP’s to watch, and promises to try to get it to the opposition-owned TV-channel’s distribution. He is, however, afraid that even the opposition won’t have the courage to show the film on their channel, as in addition to Ahmet they would also get the Prime Minister and President on their backs. Turkey has a long history of ruling through fear and intimidation, and influential people’s deterrents still function effectively. This sounds familiar also in our country, tarnished by Finlandization. Small Finland seeks its Finlandization subject humbly and fearfully. After the Soviet Union and China, Nokia has risen as the big brother, at the feet of which the whole nation lies, fearfully and silently, with the Prime Minister in the front line.
1001 festival's Honorary Recognition for Shadow of the Holy Book
The Islamic liberal newspaper Zaman does an interview in relation to our film. Like Sabah and Hürriyet, Zaman is also one of Turkey’s leading newspapers. The journalist comes to the film’s opening screening and is excited about what he sees, praising the film. The article, however, never materialises. Ahmet is not the owner of Zaman, but is its important supporter and financier. The journalist is clearly not aware of this. The article gets stuck in the editorial office. The media control and power exerted by Ahmet and Erdogan functions disconcertingly well.