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Disney’s decision not to air a high-profile series dramatizing the life of Turkey’s founding father has sparked uproar, with top Turkish officials accusing the American network of bowing to pressure from Armenian groups.

Turkish media reported Wednesday that Disney had decided to pull the show “Atatürk,” a six-part period drama series originally billed for broadcast on its Disney+ platform on October 29. Its release was timed to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Ebubekir Şahin, the head of Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council, announced an investigation would be launched into claims that the decision was taken after concerted lobbying from the Armenian diaspora.

“Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of our Republic of Türkiye, is our most important social value,” he said.

While Atatürk remains a totemic figure for Turks for founding a modern secular republic in 1923 from the ashes of the Ottoman empire, critics say his new state embraced the perpetrators of a genocide against Armenians committed during World War I and heaped the blame for the massacres on the victims.

Turkey officially maintains that Armenians took up arms against the Ottoman state, sometimes in league with Russia, and that the deaths were a result of war and disease, while also disputing the numbers of dead. Ankara says the killings of Armenians were not systematic, despite them being recognized as genocide by 34 countries including the U.S., as well as the European Parliament. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks were also subject to deportation and death marches.

A spokesperson for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s governing AK Party called Disney’s move “shameful” and alleged the company had caved in to “the Armenian lobby.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, Disney+ confirmed it would not be airing the series, but said the show had been picked up by its sister company FOX instead. The network said the move was a routine commercial programming decision “in line with our revised content distribution strategy,” and a spokesperson declined to comment on criticism of the series.

‘Scary proposition’

Atatürk — whose honorific means “Father of the Turks” — served as a military commander in the Ottoman Empire, overseeing Turkish forces at Gallipoli in World War I, where he defended Istanbul (then Constantinople) against invading British, Australian and New Zealand troops. He was on the frontlines at Gallipoli and not a national leader during some of the most brutal slaughter of Armenians, many of whom were marched to the Syrian desert.

He is also credited with preventing the Allies from carving up the Ottoman empire at the end of the war.

Atatürk’s picture hangs in government offices, restaurants and homes across the country, while statues to him have been erected in public squares in almost every major city. Publicly insulting his memory is punishable by up to three years in prison, and several Turkish citizens have been charged with the crime in recent years.

Both Greek and Armenian activists have opposed the release of the “Atatürk” series, which they say whitewashes his complicity with dark chapters in the histories of their people.

While Atatürk remains a totemic figure for Turks, critics say his new state embraced the perpetrators of a genocide against Armenians committed during World War I | Keystone/Getty Images

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, which has led the campaign for the network scrap the show, said giving the “Disney treatment” to Atatürk was a “scary proposition.”

“Anything that looks at Atatürk without putting his genocidal legacy at the very center risks normalizing what he did. If there’s now a national or an international discussion about that legacy, that’s a very welcome thing,” he told POLITICO.

In 2020, Disney came under fire for shooting parts of its live-action film Mulan in China’s Xinjiang region, leading to accusations the company was helping whitewash widespread human rights abuses by Beijing against the region’s Uyghur Muslim population.