The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

More attacks on the press in Turkey

Press freedom in Turkey has taken a beating in recent years, driven by efforts to detain and expel journalists with ties to the Kurdish PKK. The journalist Frederike Geerdink was recently expelled from Turkey while covering the PKK. And three reporters associated with VICE News were detained for “supporting terrorism” – that is, interviewing PKK members. The government’s logic here is eerily similar to that of the Egyptian court that passed judgment on Al Jazeera reporters for the “crime” of interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are quite a few other “off-limits” topics in Ankara’s eyes today. After the Kurdish Question, the most taboo one is government corruption, whether it is in the form of sweet deals for friends and family of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the diversion of war matériel into Syria.

"Who are we?" "The Erdogans!" "What do we want?" "All the money!" "When?" "Right now!" "..." "The Erdogans!" From @HandeGabrali

The most recent episode in this drama was a police raid on the offices of the Kopa Ipek conglomerate. The raid followed a report in the Koza Ipek-owned Bugün newspaper on the transfer of weaponry and construction material into Syria from a Turkish border post. Warrants have since been issued for the firm’s executives on the grounds that Kopa Ipek is allegedly providing material support to Syrian terrorists.

Examining the record of arms transfers into Syria – ostensibly to fight against Assad and build influence among the rebel forces – is a particular sore spot these days, with the government going so far as to arrest the forensics experts and prosecutors who were originally tasked with investigating arms transfers … until their higher-ups decided to kill the probe and punish those whose routine police work exposed a major clandestine operation. Erdogan himself has even demanded that reporters from Cumhuriyet face maximum jail time on the grounds that their reporting is part of a conspiracy by his former Islamist allies, the Gulenists.

Given that the Gulenists were once allies of the AKP and permitted to hold positions of influence in media and government, Erdogan’s reaction is not all that shocking. In the estimation of the socialist daily Birgun, these actions have been aimed at circling AKP wagons ahead of the November elections, a tactic that other observers of Turkish politics saw in action even before now.

The targeting of the conglomerate is part of a larger crackdown on Gulenist finances. But this was not always so: Koza Ipek’s foray into the national media market was initially welcomed by the AKP, since its conservative editorial line distinguished it from other media, like the Dogan Media Group, that have long been critical of the AKP.

But since 2013, the Gulenists have had a serious falling out with the AKP. Cracks were apparent prior to then over economic policy and foreign affairs, but the real break came with a massive anti-corruption campaign that the Gulenists championed against the AKP’s leadership. As punishment for this effort, the movement is now described in state media as a “cult” plotting a putsch, no better than the alleged “Ergenekon” conspirators of the early 2010s who were themselves billed as the second coming of Operation Gladio.

The AKP-Gulen relationship first blossomed in 2002 when the two Islamist camps struck a “tactical alliance.” But during the course of the controversial “Ergenekon” trials, the AKP may have decided that the Gulenist press had gained too much influence in their coverage and championing of the investigations. Likewise, the Gulenists recognized they had gained greater influence in the country’s political life by pursuing the campaign so assiduously. Disenchantment within Gulenist ranks was rapidly growing over Turkey’s economic tribulations, making them wonder if they might not do a better job than the AKP. AKP stalwarts meanwhile resented the Gulenists’ apparent disregard for the compromises and failures the AKP had to take on as the ruling party.

The Gulenists’ own successes provided ample avenues of attack against their organization, in the end. Their internationalism became proof of an inherently conspiratorial nature. The patronage and access their adherents enjoyed were reinterpreted as efforts to create deep cover for infiltrating institutions. And criticism of economic policies that negatively impacted Gulenist donors came to be seen as a prelude to a run on the AKP at the polls. All of this became part of the “evidence” that the movement was a hostile “parallel structure,” an Islamist Gladio biding its time.

By December 2013, following months of skirmishing, the matter came to a head when the judiciary and police, both of which counted many Gulenists among their ranks, began investing the AKP leadership for corruption, uncovering scandals that the Gulenist-affiliated press pursued with vigor. Now a line had been crossed, and an AKP “witch hunt” began in earnest. Erdogan’s position on the Gulenists’ overreach was made quite clear by the subsequent firing of Gulenists from their jobs, the cessation of support for the movement’s work, raids or arrests of its supporters, and remarks in pro-AKP outlets threatening to squash critics like bugs. Turkish democracy has been seriously undermined by this “witch hunt”, which has continued unabated for almost two years. Comments today that imply the AKP has been (too) kind in staying its hand against the press continue to echo remarks made by AKP functionaries in 2013 that “we could drown you [protestors] in a spoon of water, but luckily for you we believe in democracy.”

There is no unified line among editorial critics of the AKP: they range from the secular nationalist camp to Islamists to oligarchs and trade unionists alike. But the most common theme today is exposing greased palms on the frontlines of the Iraqi and Syria conflicts. Corruption is so close to the surface that reporters who take the risk can find ample evidence of it.

It is quite clear that elements within Turkey’s security services are not averse to turning a buck from these conflicts. Oil smuggling rings ranging across the borders of Iraq, Turkey, and Syria draw in a cast ranging from the Turkish Gendarmerie to ISIS muscle. People smuggling is lucrative, too, whether it be to bring jihadists into Syria or refugees out. The only real question left is if dodgy deals like Heysem Topalca’s arms-for-artifacts trading are one-offs, or if his case was typical but just too egregious to ignore. Given that larger smuggling operations fly artifacts out of dig sites in northern Syria, it would seem that the latter case is more likely. As the archaeologist Sam Hardy notes, such plundering by the security services to finance a “dirty war” has precedent in Turkish politics. It is little wonder that this sort of muckraking is discouraged at all levels, from the president’s office on down.

For now, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury of VICE News have been released, but their colleague, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, has not – presumably because the government can more easily bully someone who doesn’t have a Western passport. It also sends a message to the domestic fixers, reporters, and translators who make international media coverage of Turkey’s domestic political turmoil possible.