Turkey Book Talk episode #136 – Taner Doğan on “Communication Strategies in Turkey: Erdogan, the AKP and Political Messaging” (IB Tauris/Bloomsbury).

The book is based on over 100 interviews with AKP supporters, activists, officials, strategists and pundits, as well as attending events and closely examining Erdoğan’s messaging as his rhetoric shifted from emphasising Ankara’s EU membership goal towards hard-edged nationalism.

Download the episode or listen below:

Listen to Turkey Book Talk:  iTunes / PodBean / Stitcher / Acast / Spotify / RSS

Follow Turkey Book Talk on Facebook or Twitter

Check out Raziye Akkoç and Diego Cupolo’s excellent Turkey Recap weekly newsletter.

Support Turkey Book Talk by becoming a member. Members get extras including exclusive access to a 30% discount on all Turkey/Ottoman history books published by IB Tauris/Bloomsbury, English and Turkish transcripts of every interview upon publication, transcripts of the entire archive of episodes, and an archive of 231 reviews written by myself covering Turkish and international fiction, history, journalism and politics.

Turkey Book Talk episode #108  –  Erkan Saka, associate professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, on “Social Media and Politics in Turkey: A Journey Through Citizen Journalism, Political Trolling and Fake News” (Lexington).

The book looks at the transformation of social media use in Turkey over the years, as well as the government crackdown on social media platforms and users.

Download the episode or listen below.

Listen to Turkey Book Talk :  iTunes / PodBean / Stitcher / Acast / Spotify / RSS

Follow on Facebook or Twitter

Check out the excellent Turkey Recap weekly newsletter.

61nP1BbGMtL

Become a member to support Turkey Book Talk and get loads of extras: A 35% discount on any of over 100 books in IB Tauris/Bloomsbury’s excellent Turkey/Ottoman history category, English and Turkish transcripts of every interview upon publication, transcripts of the entire archive of episodes, and an archive of 231 reviews written by myself covering Turkish and international fiction, history, journalism and politics.

Sign up as a member to support Turkey Book Talk via Patreon.

Ece Temelkuran joins Turkey Book Talk to discuss “Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy” (Zed Books), her vivid and personal account of the current state of the country.

Download the episode or listen below.

Subscribe to Turkey Book Talk :  iTunes / PodBean / Stitcher / Facebook / RSS

Insane and melancholy

My review of this one is pending – waiting for it to be published in the TLS before posting in abridged form in Hürriyet.

If you like Turkey Book Talk and want to support independent podcasting, you can make a small or large monetary donation to the show via Patreon.

Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Andrew Cruickshank and Aaron Ataman.

Turkey Book Talk is back after a one month hiatus.

We return with a good one: Bilge Yeşil speaks about her book “Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State” (University of Illinois Press).

Download the episode or listen below:

Subscribe to Turkey Book Talk: iTunes / PodBean / Stitcher / Facebook / RSS

Here’s my review of the book.

Media

If you like Turkey Book Talk and want to support independent podcasting, you can make a small or large monetary donation to the show via Patreon. Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Andrew Cruickshank and Aaron Ataman.

I’ve written a piece for Foreign Policy on the deterioration of the Turkish government’s image in the international media, and Turkey’s aggressive response:

 

The foreign media image of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish government has shattered over the past 18 months, and in response Turkey has ramped up an international information blitzkrieg.

The tone is becoming increasingly bitter, motivated by a conviction that the foreign media is a propaganda weapon deployed by the West to attack the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Patriotic Turks are called on to rally behind their government in the name of national sovereignty.

This sense of embattled defiance is important to understand, and reveals much about the resentful mindset gripping the state. Suspicion about the foreign press is hardly new in Turkey, but it’s unfortunate to see the worst of such sentiments returning – openly sponsored by Erdoğan and the AKP’s top brass. The president himself is even managing to turn international criticism to his own advantage, as evidence that the West is implacably hostile to Turkey and its fearless, truth-telling leader — a useful populist line ahead of next June’s crucial parliamentary elections.

 

Read the full article here.

PM Erdoğan’s jet

July 24, 2014

As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan flies around on his apparently never-ending election campaign, the symbolism of “Erdoğan’s jet” and who he invites onboard is coming under increasing scrutiny. These days, only reporters from the most craven pro-government media outlets – the usual suspects of Sabah, Yeni Şafak, Star, Akşam, Türkiye, Yeni Akit – tend to be given the golden ticket to fly on Erdoğan’s private “ANA” jet; a place on board is almost used as a carrot to reward docile behaviour. As daily Hürriyet’s ombudsman Faruk Bildirici wrote in a piece last month, the reporters accepted onto the plane are guaranteed not to ask difficult questions, choosing to do little more substantial than perform as the AKP’s media arm, “as assistants to help Erdoğan comfortably transmit whatever message he wants to the public.”

An increasingly narrow coterie of trusted media figures is being granted access to the prime minister. The effect isn’t only seen in who Erdoğan accepts onto his plane; it is also there in the TV stations and newspapers that he and other prominent government figures choose to grant interviews to, and in the hand-picking of interlocutors during these exchanges. Of course, democratic governments across the world have media groups to which they are closer and which, to some extent, they rely on; indeed, the opposition parties in Turkey also have their own “reliable” media camps. But there’s something blatantly unfair about the mutually supportive state-private network that is reinforcing the AKP government in power today. The cosiness of the prime minister and the media accepted onto his jet is just one of the most obvious examples of this favouritism.

A familiar scene: Erdoğan surrounded by loyal scribes on his private jet. (Photo credit: Milliyet)

Last week, the Nielsen Company’s AdEx advertising information report caused quite a stir in Turkey, revealing how advertising provided by state companies was weighted heavily in favour of government-friendly media groups. According to the report, of the 18 national newspapers examined, the three that received the most public advertising slots in the first six months of 2014 were the pro-government Sabah, Star and Milliyet dailies. The bottom five, meanwhile, were all broadly AKP sceptics, despite two of them – Posta and Zaman – having the highest circulation figures in the country. The two newspapers known as being close to the movement of ally-turned-bête noir Fethullah Gülen – Bugün and Zaman – received almost zero advertising from state institutions. Similarly, TV stations that are known to be closer to the government received far more advertising from public bodies in the first half of the year. Two pro-Gülen television channels – Samanyolu and Bugün TV – received no advertising revenue whatsoever from state companies. While much of the recent focus has been on public broadcaster TRT’s hugely imbalanced coverage in favour of Erdoğan ahead of next month’s presidential election, the way that state institutions are marching in lock-step with government-friendly private companies also has perilous consequences.

The issue of who gets to travel on the prime minister’s private jet is only one symptom of a Turkish media stuck in a broader partisan malaise. Indeed, while those who get invited onto the PM’s plane see their role as only being to transmit whatever the prime minister says, the myopic fixation on every word uttered by Erdoğan is unfortunately shared across pro- and anti-government outlets (as I have previously written). With important exceptions, all sides are sucked into an endless, meaningless argument about where they stand on whatever Erdoğan’s latest utterances and positions are – those positions are the fuel motoring 80 percent of Turkish media’s shallow news agenda. “Important Statements from the Prime Minister” stories are only becoming more common as power becomes more centralized around one man, and the situation isn’t likely to improve after Erdoğan is elected president next month.

 

[Originally posted at Hürriyet Daily News]

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s recent tactic to feed its supporters a steady diet of enemies has turned its focus on Germany over the last few weeks. The green light came with the verbal joust between German President Joachim Gauck and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during the former’s visit to Ankara at the end of April. After Gauck sharply criticised the state of press freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey, Erdoğan responded in reliably pugnacious style, declaring that the Lutheran Gauck “still thinks of himself as a pastor” and “cannot interfere in our country’s internal affairs.”

Equally reliably, the pro-government media has zealously taken up Erdoğan’s cause, gorging itself on anti-German material over the last couple of weeks including moronic, depressingly predictable Nazi analogies. Germany has thus taken its place alongside Jews, Masons, Atheists, Britain, the U.S., the “interest rate lobby,” the “parallel state,” and assorted domestic collaborators, in a “dirty alliance” to bring down Erdoğan and his government. This media campaign has been thrown a fair amount of red meat by a few ill-advised stories and headlines in Germany. Ahead of the prime minister’s much-anticipated rally in Cologne on May 24, for example, popular tabloid Bild carried a front page headline addressed to Erdoğan, declaring: “You’re not welcome.” The AKP-friendly media took full advantage, describing this as the latest evidence that Germany is frightened of Turkey’s unstoppable rise and is trying to sabotage Erdoğan’s political career (and thus Turkey’s path to a glorious future). Some of this stuff has been harmless tabloid fare, while some of it has been more worrying. Last week, German news magazine Der Speigel announced that it was withdrawing its Turkey correspondent, Hasnain Kazim, after he received over 10,000 threatening messages from online pro-government trolls, including death threats. His crime was to quote in a headline the reaction of a protesting miner in the disaster-struck town of Soma, who reportedly said, “Go to hell, Erdoğan.”

 

Akşam claims that "Turkish-Europe" lobbies - including Turkish media boss Aydın Doğan - are working in partnership in a slander campaign against the AKP government.

Akşam newspaper claims that “Turkish-Europe” lobbies in Germany – including Turkish media tycoon Aydın Doğan – are working in partnership in a slander campaign against the AKP government.

 

One of the more thoughtful interventions in this sad state of affairs came in the short interview given to T24 by Cem Özdemir, the Turkish-origin co-leader of Germany’s Green Party, on May 26. Putting aside his questionable sideburns, Özdemir had some eminently reasonable things to say, but PM Erdoğan still found things to object to. During his typically tub-thumping weekly AKP parliamentary group speech on Tuesday, he slammed Özdemir as a “so-called Turk, a co-head of a political party over there. The words he used before and after our meeting were very ugly. How are you a democrat? … Are you so disturbed by the prime minister of the Turkish Republic going there? You have no right to talk to the prime minister of your country of origin, of which you are a member, in this way. It doesn’t matter where you are an MP, first you will know your place.” You can decide for yourself whether that was a proportional response to Özdemir’s measured words to T24, which I’ve translated below:

 

How do you assess Prime Minister Erdoğan’s speech in Cologne?

From now on, no matter what he does, unfortunately we’ve come to the point where it can’t really change anything … The Soma mine disaster and his earlier speeches have formed such a bad picture. From now on, Erdoğan won’t easily be able to change this image. He’s also negatively affecting Turkey’s image. In recent years here, there was a positive image. But that has completely collapsed, it has reversed and a negative image of Turkey has been formed. Erdoğan has become a symbol of this negative image.

Isn’t the German public’s reaction to Erdoğan very exaggerated?

Both his supporters and his critics are exaggerating. His supporters completely idolize him, and see him as a completely faultless, flawless person; while a section of his critics are making a big mistake by comparing him to Hitler. The comparison with Vladimir Putin is better because Erdoğan really is transforming Turkey into an authoritarian regime. But the Hitler comparison is very excessive. So, without generalizing, both sides are making mistakes. These exaggerated approaches are having a very negative effect on the perception of Turkey here in Germany.

In Erdoğan’s speech, Angela Merkel was booed in the hall.

This booing of Merkel’s name leaves a very bad impression. It was very ugly, and it will stay in people’s minds. We will be the ones to pay the price for this. It gives the message: You’re living here, you’re eating its bread, your taxes are paid here, your children are going to school here, you’re benefiting from the welfare state. At the same time, you are booing this country’s prime minister and worshipping another country’s prime minister. It brings the question of loyalty back onto the agenda. We have been struggling for 50 years. “We are loyal citizens,” we say. “Trust us, there’s no need to worry.” This is brought down by the image left by those who went to that rally.

Erdoğan actually had a lot of different groups booed in the rally.

The crowd was transformed as if it was living on enemy soil. There is no such partisanship in German politics; they support politicians but they don’t worship. In the end we are just people; all of us will depart this world one day. To worship someone in such a way both amazes and scares people. In addition, those German Turks who were demonstrating against Erdoğan’s visit pumped up fears about whether “Turkey’s internal problems are being brought here.” In the past there was polarisation between Turk and Kurd, right and left; now the worry is spreading about whether the new polarisation is between Erdoğan’s supporters and his opponents.

Erdoğan’s image in Europe was very positive for many years. How is it now after this speech?

He’s destroying his own successes.

As a Turkish-origin politician, what do you say to the German public?

In the past, we used to say things like, “Probably he meant to say this; if he knew the details he would have spoken differently.” But we’ve gone beyond that, there’s nothing we can defend anymore. Even those ministers in Germany who were previously most positive [about Turkey] are now saying, “This is more than enough.” Erdoğan has 100 percent lost Germany.

 

[Originally posted at Hürriyet Daily News]

It’s extremely sad to see how quickly the tragic Soma mining disaster has become the latest material to be used in Turkey’s political turf war. Soon after news of the country’s worst ever industrial disaster broke I was appalled by the immediate politicising of the incident; perhaps naively I thought that the time for recriminations could follow after a period of respectful mourning for the hundreds of dead miners. However, events quickly took on a momentum of their own; it became hard to talk about “not politicising” the tragedy after the prime minister and his entourage attacked grieving and angry locals in the town, and when there is such a shocking lack of accountability from either the mining company or the government.

A heavy burden of responsibility for this lack of accountability falls on the shoulders of Turkey’s supplicant mainstream media. There is plenty of talk of “yes men” in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle, but Turkey’s entire mainstream news media acts in a similar way. Watching the major TV “news” stations – ATV, NTV, 24TV, CNN Türk, Habertürk – in the aftermath of the disaster has been depressing and infuriating: A procession of ministers giving statements, interviewers desperately trying to avoid asking difficult questions, and a complete unwillingness to report many of the most significant incidents that happen. Why the lack of numbers of those still inside the mine three days after the explosion? Why the lack of exact numbers of those who went down into the mine in the first place? Why the confusion over the cause of the disaster three days later? Why the confusion over the official death toll? Why did it take three days to get any official statement from the mine’s owner, Soma Holding? Why no resignations? Erdoğan’s disastrous May 14 visit to the town – during which he delivered a shockingly insensitive speech, was heckled by the crowds, and then attacked grieving protesters along with one of his advisers – was also shamelessly covered up by all major TV stations. This was particularly ironic, as they are usually so keen to slavishly report every single word that comes out of the prime minister’s mouth.

PM Erdoğan snapped while reading Yeni Şafak recently.

PM Erdoğan snapped while reading Yeni Şafak recently.

But Erdoğan’s apparent lack of sympathy doesn’t just come from nowhere; indeed, his dreadful response to the tragedy has been conditioned by his “yes man” media, which is often little more than an echo chamber of his own words. When the PM never has to respond to a tough question, gives “interviews” with genuflecting, hand-picked interviewers, and holds stage-managed televised rallies in front of hundreds of thousands of bussed in supporters, how will he respond when faced with spontaneous grass-roots opposition holding him to account? When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is surrounded by a media establishment simply reinforcing its narrative on every single issue, it isn’t surprising to see it respond with anger and confusion when confronted by events beyond its control.

The Turkish media is flawed because it doesn’t inform the public properly. But its soft-touch failure to hold the ruling authorities to account is actually harming Prime Minister Erdoğan in a more subtle way. Such pandering has made him sloppy, complacent, and blinkered, so that when a “black swan” event like the disaster in Soma occurs, he is simply not conditioned to respond adequately. One of the less recognised effects of the AKP’s castrating of the mainstream media is to make it less responsive to such incidents. Ultimately, while they may seem to help the government in the short term, the AKP’s echo chambers have actually isolated Erdoğan, damaging his ability to think and reason clearly, and contributing to his utter inability to sympathise with those who aren’t like him. The Soma disaster is only the latest example of this; it’s certainly the saddest.

 

[Originally posted at Hürriyet Daily News]

A long and revealing interview with Doğan Ertuğrul, the former senior news editor of the staunchly pro-government daily Star, appeared on the news website T24 on May 5. Ertuğrul resigned from the newspaper in March, issuing a statement complaining that it had descended into the realm of “black propaganda”:

In the state of insanity that Turkey is currently experiencing, the media has suffered more than its share. ‘News’ papers and TV stations that don’t observe news values and instead aim for perception management – or, more accurately, black propaganda – have become routine.I have held the same position at Star for years, but I feel there is no longer any possibility there to do responsible and balanced journalism.

One wonders why it took so long to come to this conclusion, but Ertuğrul candidly explained his thoughts to T24‘s Hazal Özvarış.

Star is one of the pillars of the friendly new media establishment that has developed around Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) since it came to power in 2002. As comes through in the interview with Ertuğrul, it sees itself as more intellectual that the higher-circulation Sabah, though you have to ask just how highbrow a title featuring bi-weekly columns from PM Erdoğan’s economic advisor and telekinesis-detector Yiğit Bulut can be. Along with its sister TV station, Kanal 24, Star was bought by businessman Ethem Sancak in 2007, with Sancak declaring soon afterwards that he had entered the media sector “to serve the prime minister.” Kanal 24 is now equally devoted to the government as Star, and is probably even more influential, reaching a much wider audience while remaining just as partisan. After selling both off in 2009 (having made the necessary editorial adjustments), Sancak bought them back last month.

 

Star's front page headline on May 4, slamming Washington-based think tank Freedom House for it's recent press freedom report that described the Turkish media as "Not free." The subheading criticises Freedom House for alleged links to "Israel lobbies" and "famous speculator George Soros." The text underneath stresses that its president is Jewish.

Star’s front page headline on May 4, slamming Washington-based think tank Freedom House for it’s recent press freedom report describing the Turkish media as “Not free.” The subheading says Freedom House has links to “Israel lobbies” as well as “famous speculator George Soros,” while the text underneath emphasises that its president, David Kramer, is a Jew.

 

Back in 2007, Sancak declared himself “lovesick for the prime minister,” adding that Erdoğan was his “most important idol.” He is one of the wealthiest and most prominent members of the AKP’s new constructocracy, with economic interests intertwining closely with the political interests of the government. Money can’t be made from owning a newspaper, but Sancak knows that owning an AKP-friendly media company is a necessary overhead to win contracts in other areas, (just last week his firm won the tender for armoured vehicle and bus manufacturer BMC).

He first bought the Star Media Group at a time when Turkey’s “old elite” was applying a huge amount of pressure against Erdoğan and the AKP over Abdullah Gül’s presidential candidacy in 2007, and just one year before the closure case against the party was to be brought to the Constitutional Court. The AKP became convinced that a new, friendly media was needed to defend it against such attacks, so it actively went about fostering this. In light of the harsh atmosphere of the period and as part of the narrative of Turkey’s “normalisation,” there was actually a defendable case to be made for such a move. However, as in many other areas, it has all gone too far. Pressure is now being applied to media across the spectrum, and the core group of pro-government titles has descended into blatant distortion, parrot-like repetition of AKP public statements, and vitriolic character assassinations. As Henri Barkey recently wrote, Turkey’s slavishly devoted pro-government media now resembles “Pravda on steroids.”

T24’s interview with Ertuğrul highlights his revelation about how an interview with President Gül was censored by Star in order to not disturb PM Erdoğan. However, it is perhaps more interesting for the glimpse that Ertuğrul gives into the inner workings of the newspaper; none of it comes as a surprise, but it is quite unusual for an “insider” to go public in such a way. Translated below are some of the most important points, which I think speak for themselves:

My colleagues at Star used to jokingly call me “Brother ethics” because of my concern about journalistic principles. I used to hold many of the same ideals as the AK Parti government, but when the party started to abandon these principles, the media that is close to the government also started to follow the same path. My first realisation of this was during the Gezi protests. I went to Gezi and so did my children. I had the opportunity to see both the groups using violence, and also those with ordinary, democratic demands. For this reason I found the attitude taken against Gezi by the government and the government media very disturbing.

….

There was a complicated process during the “Kabataş assault” story during Gezi. At the editorial meeting I came out and said this story was fantastical and unconvincing. Many other editors expressed similar views. I said it was wrong to publish news without any evidence at all, based only on the claims of the young headscarved mother. But I couldn’t prevent the story from being published … After the camera footage emerged showing what really happened in Kabataş we even debated writing a formal apology at the editorial meeting; but as the prime minister’s attitude became clearer, this became impossible to publish.

….

I had already been objecting to a lot of things, and my objections were always taken into consideration. However, by the end the number of these objections being considered dropped … We had a responsibility to the public before our responsibility to Erdoğan. But that threshold was passed long ago.

The prime minister doesn’t see anyone’s position as “enough.” This happened in a lot of incidents with us. After saying to ourselves, “This [language] is very tough, let’s not put it in the headline,” we then saw Sabah’s headline the next day and we said to ourselves jokingly, “Ah, the prime minister will now criticize us by saying, ‘Look, have you seen this?’”

In the government’s media there is no need for “Alo Fatih” calls interfering in the editorial process. There, people already know the reflexes of the prime minister and the government. In this sense, Star is a comfortable newspaper … The editors know what they have to do, what will or will not upset the government. There’s a kind of shared mind-set that doesn’t exist in somewhere like Habertürk, for example … I can’t speak for elsewhere, but I can speak clearly about the situation in Star. [PM Erdoğan’s economic advisor] Yiğit Bulut is a writer there, and before he was a TV station’s director; [Erdoğan’s political advisor] Yalçın Akdoğan also writes in Star. Both of them very regularly visit the newspaper. Therefore, caricature-like “Alo Fatih” phone calls are not even necessary at Star.

The issue isn’t just about patronage. These newspapers also have directors. If we look at just bosses, we can see that Yeni Şafak’s boss has his own personal agenda. For example, despite the prime minister’s support, Yeni Şafak ran a campaign to prevent Mehmet Görmez from becoming the Religious Affairs minister. For some reason or another, the paper’s boss doesn’t like Görmez. In other newspapers, the most important thing is to consider which minister or which prime minister’s assistant they are close to, and what kind of closeness they have.

It’s possible that many journalists are supporting the government both out of the opportunities this offers and also because they share its ideology. The AK Parti has created its own ideology; call it AK Parti-ism or Erdoğanism. The business environment is connected to the government, so is the media, so is the judiciary, so is the bureaucracy. This is a summary of the Turkey of Tayyip Erdoğan’s dreams.

A coterie has developed that uses the political and economic opportunities provided by the government. In the media at the moment there are people supporting the government, but a large number of these will curse Erdoğan when his government declines. There are a lot of people behind him who have no real sympathy for him.

During the Gezi protests and especially after Dec. 17 [corruption probe] there were dozens of headlines that unfortunately didn’t conform with proper news criteria and were published for propaganda purposes. It’s no longer difficult to see how the government is the source behind a lot of news and a lot of journalists. Sabah, Yeni Şafak, Star, and Akşam haven’t published a single line about the claims in the Dec. 17 investigations. There hasn’t been a single piece of news about what the claims actually were. At the same time, we read propaganda in the government media about the Gezi protesters’ “global terror links,” about Israel being behind Dec. 17, and even debates about the Gülen movement’s Islamic-ness.

There were a lot of former police chiefs, bureaucrats, and politicians found guilty in the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases who started to feature in Star headline stories just because they took the same positions as the prime minister. People like Emin Aslan, Sabri Uzun, Hanefi Avcı. Once upon a time the accusations against them were widely reported in the newspaper. As that was the case, what were we doing back then? And what are we doing now?

While I still worked at Star, I struggled to keep doing the things that I believed were correct in the name of journalism. I asked myself whether I should quit, or stay and struggle. In order to change things you must struggle. I objected to what was being done, I did what I could, and when I saw that I wouldn’t be able to do it any more I quit. I wondered about whether the insane atmosphere in Turkey would end after the local elections in March … But I saw how the country and Star became even harsher after the elections.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief economic advisor, Yiğit Bulut, is both the Flavor Flav to his Chuck D, and the Aristotle to his Alexander the Great; both the “hype man” on stage and “theorist” behind the throne. His appointment to the PM’s inner circle caused mirth last July, amid his suggestion that foreign powers were seeking to kill Erdoğan using telekinesis, but that was just one of many odd theories he has come up with since last summer’s Gezi Park protests. He recently made headlines by declaring that the EU, (Turkey’s number one trading partner), was “finished” and would be superseded by the “new world order” of the “Turkey-Eurasia/Russia-Middle East equation”; while last year he told a TV programme that he would “die for Erdoğan if necessary.” Bulut’s rise is both a symptom and a cause of Erdoğan’s gradual departure from reality, and the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) steady descent into paranoia.

People often speculate about whether Erdoğan “really believes” the conspiracy theories that he comes out with, or whether they are just a cynical way of playing to his electoral base in tough times. In fact, both can be true, and insisting only on the latter ignores the deep traces of such currents through the history of Turkey’s Islamist movements, (not least in Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Party, where Erdoğan cut his political teeth). When times were easier during the AKP’s first couple of terms, such rhetoric generally remained latent; but it was always ready to surface again when things took a turn for the worse. This was clearly the case after last year’s Gezi protests and the Dec. 17 corruption probe. Erdoğan did indeed play to his base out of electoral calculation, but when the stakes were so high and the alternative was political disaster (and possibly jail), those conspiracies must also have been a lot more convincing to him. It’s probably significant that Bulut was named advisor to Erdoğan shortly after the Gezi protests erupted. It was in those difficult circumstances that his warnings of a Turkey besieged by foreign powers and his political vision of fantasy neo-Ottomanism must have made the most sense to the prime minister.

Bulut was actually once a staunch, nationalist-flavoured critic of the AKP, critical of privatisations, its inability to deal with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and Turkey’s growing debt stock. The Damascus moment came some time before his 2010 divorce from former wife Şule Zeybek, the niece of secularist media tycoon Aydın Doğan, and ever since he has defended Erdoğan with the zeal of a true convert. In June 2012 he became the editor of pro-government 24TV, after which he was rewarded for his now-unswerving loyalty with an appointment to the prime minister’s brain trust. He now juggles his new role with his regular column in daily Star and political talk show appearances on pro-government TV. Indeed, Bulut was at the centre of one of the more amusing episodes from the wiretap leaks released before Turkey’s March 30 local elections: A conversation between the editor of private broadcaster NTV, Nermin Yurteri, and PM Erdoğan’s chief political advisor, Yalçın Akdoğan. In it, Akdoğan demands that Bulut be included as a guest on a news discussion programme, which is desperately resisted by Yurteri, who says her station is willing to accept any other pro-government figure but not the widely ridiculed Bulut.

Advertisement for Yiğit Bulut's pre-election "National Will" lecture tour, arriving in Istanbul's Esenler district.

Advert for Yiğit Bulut’s pre-election “National Will” lecture tour, arriving in Istanbul’s Esenler district.

The crude populism of Bulut’s thrice weekly Star column is reminiscent of Erdoğan’s bombastic public speeches, but the wild adolescent theorising about the “NEW WORLD ORDER” may be less familiar. It’s chilling to think that it’s not the ranting of a frustrated teenage shop assistant in Yozgat, but that of the Turkish prime minister’s chief economic confidant, who has a personal office in Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace.

Translated below is one of Bulut’s columns in Star. Hard to believe, it isn’t one of his most spectacular pieces, but it does give a good idea of his surreal intellectual hinterland. It appeared on March 28, as Turkey’s political atmosphere was at fever pitch just two days before the critical local election. In it, we see Aristotle turning his attention to the future challenges facing the “New Turkey” and how the government’s defense policies can best meet these new challenges:

 

What is the biggest danger for the ‘new great Turkey’?

In the days before 2003, when Turkey was still covered up, the question that was asked was this: Which is the biggest threat for Turkey, “fundamentalism” or “separatist terrorism”?

My dear friends, today the question is different: What is the biggest threat for a Turkey that is making peace with itself and expanding? Is it possible to ignore or even destroy the National Will? I repeat: Is it possible to ignore or even destroy the National Will?

This country had many days, months and years of viewing and being forced to view its own values as a threat. The way we looked at issues was mistaken, and so were the solutions we put forward! Until 2003 we lived in this “blind well,” and with our “mistaken entrances” we always produced “mistaken results”!

Dear friends, today the situation is very different, and when is to be done is clear: Turkey is establishing a new threat perception, appropriate to its understanding of the “new world order”; as a necessity it is forming a “national defense-military technology-production” strategy. It’s not difficult to detail this: Turkey is advancing to become a country capable of reaching the maximum fire power with minimal “human resources,” conducting operations in all areas and – most importantly – meeting its “defense needs” with indigenous technology and even producing “concepts.”

Dear friends, there were once built-in internal and external focuses were imposed on us for years, and the “built-in media” vehicle didn’t even allow us to question this! We even helplessly believed that our own Muslim citizens could be our biggest threat, that our Kurdish-origin citizens could want to divide us… It wasn’t right, it was never right, but we could never remove “this sack from our heads” and realise the true “threat definition”! Today we have ripped off the sacks, and the path we will now embrace is apparent!

Result 1: As Turkey grows, it will see; enemies are not just internal and external. As Turkey GROWS, it will see that its enemies are not only inside the nation, but they also hide and focus in the twists in the path of Turkey’s expansion.

Result 2: Our minds must be very sharp and our thesis must be very clear: In the last 10 years, Turkey has ripped off the “sacks,” saved itself from the “diseased structure” of previous civil-military relations, and is progressing on the path of “becoming a universal state” in the new world order.

Result 3: Turkey is defining a “new national defense concept suitable for a universal state” and is also detailing the technical aspects! Turkey has now revealed itself and there are those who are uncomfortable about this; therefore, a suitable new “NATIONAL STRATEGY” must be very carefully and quickly developed.

Result 4: The NEW TURKEY’s use of military force in diplomacy is inevitable! Instead of a military  focusing its perceptions on vicious internal threats, a country on the path to becoming a global player must have a military that is redefined to deal with global threats.

Result 5: A NEW CONCEPT OF NATIONAL DEFENSE will benefit the Armed Forces in great and strong diplomacy, and can only be revealed with a new political vision.

Result 6: A new concept for the Turkish Armed Forces must be formed. This new concept would replace the one which searched for virtual enemies wanting to drag the country to fundamentalism and which followed its own citizens on suspicion of dividing Turkey. Instead, it would be a concept that would be strong enough to operate in the world arena, to rival America, the EU, Israel, Russia and China. The local defense industry is currently developing, modernisation is increasing, and projects are being realised to build tanks, aircraft, and ships that can operate thousands of miles from Turkish soil. In short, the Turkish military is becoming a world force…

Result 7: All members of the Turkish Armed Forces who can “see the future” are aware that a new concept of the military will suit the concept of a new Turkey. In fact, when you look closely, you see that in this area there is a big clash between the “resisters” and those who want to “open the path.” The BUILT-IN PRESS is working to create the public impression that this is a POLITICAL AUTHORITY-ARMED FORCES clash…

Result 8: The current Global Attack is directly targeting the “national will” and seeks to surrender Turkey’s management to the hands of global governance. What we must do is very clear: Destroy these barriers and continue on our path…

Last word: The whole of Turkey – its people, its government, its state – it currently under a huge attack. Most importantly, it is standing against this attack as a whole and battling to exist. At this point, I ask you: all Turkish citizens must investigate the barriers that stand in the path of the GREAT TURKEY and, in a manner suitable to the new world order, stand as a single body against these attacks! “Fear not, the red flag blowing in the horizon won’t fade.”*

* The opening line of the Turkish national anthem.

Swimming against all economic logic, another new national newspaper appeared on Turkey’s newsstands last month. Karşı means “against” or “anti” in Turkish, and this new daily has a slogan declaring it “Against lies, the newspaper of the truth,” apparently channelling the spirit of Çarşı, (the Beşiktaş football club supporters group whose motto is “against everything”). Karşı has quite a varied team of people working on it, but in many ways it embodies Turkey’s chronic “opposition problem.” The fragmented opponents of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) comprise leftists, liberals, Kemalists, nationalists, communists, environmentalists, anti-capitalist Muslims, and now Gülenists. But together these forces not only fail to make up a majority of the Turkish electorate, they are also handicapped by their diversity; the opposition is so disparate that it can agree on little other than that the AKP is a disaster.

The anti-government Gezi Park protests that raged throughout last summer made this point particularly clearly. The protests were full of energy and ideas, but it was the kind of energy that can’t be channelled through traditional political channels. The variety that made the Gezi movement so strong and impressive is exactly what prevents it from being an effective opposition force in more formal terms. What’s more, all Turkish opposition has to contend with a highly cohesive and disciplined incumbent government, confident in the loyalty of its core conservative constituency and backed by a well-oiled media and electoral machine.

 

Karşı's first front page, reporting PM Erdoğan's call to hapless Habertürk  boss Fatih Saraç to cut a live broadcast in which Islamic theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk criticised the government.

Karşı’s first front page on Feb. 9. The headline reports PM Erdoğan’s order to hapless Habertürk controller Fatih Saraç, demanding that he cut a live broadcast in which Islamic theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk criticised the government.

 

In a recent Reuters piece about the durability of the AKP’s appeal, Hakan Altinay of the Brookings Institution is quoted as saying that there is “no political force to pick up the ingredients and cook a better meal, the opposition has no sense of direction.” Indeed, it is commonly assumed that the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is too clumsy and loaded with its own historical baggage to be effective. There’s some truth in this, but it’s hard to see how anyone could channel the disaffection of Turkey’s hugely varied opposition into a single coherent political party, while at the same time outlining a vision that can defeat the AKP at the ballot box. Similarly, Piotr Zalewski wrote last week that the CHP would “have to deliver more than just finger pointing for Turkish voters to entrust it with running the country.” That’s also true, but the party is paralysed by the fact that finger pointing is pretty much the only thing that unites those ranged against the government. A more constructive platform might target wavering AKP voters (however few they are), but that would likely risk losing the CHP’s own wavering voters. It’s an almost impossible balancing act. Of course, none of this is particularly new, but it has become particularly obvious in the lead up to the March 30 local elections.

The new newspaper Karşı – with its diverse but incoherent range of ideas about what is to be done – perhaps embodies the Gezi conundrum. As its editor-in-chief Eren Erdem has said: “The Gezi spirit excites us, and we are talking the same language as the people on the streets during the Gezi resistance. From our writers to our editors, from our printers to our correspondents, we all imagine a free world.” Of course, Karşı is a newspaper, not a political party, but its example does indicate the challenge facing any formal opposition hoping to capitalize on the AKP’s current problems.

The Turkish press has presented a grimmer spectacle than usual since the corruption scandal broke last month. The tendency that I mentioned in my last post has accelerated, with the rival Erdoğan and Gülen-affiliated media gunning for each other, adding a fresh dimension to the more familiar division between pro-government and opposition titles. The Turkish media is becoming increasingly balkanised, separated into mutually exclusive information silos that can’t agree on even the most basic facts. The problem isn’t just that certain information is given through a distorting prism, but that often it is simply not reported. Facts are cheap in an environment of hearsay and rumour mongering, but often they’re not even present in the first place.

Take the case of the resignations from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that followed the breaking of the graft probe story. Five deputies have so far resigned from the AKP over the issue, an unprecedented number and a massive shock to a party that places such a high value on internal party discipline. But the editors of Erdoğanist mass circulation Sabah shielded their readers from the harsh truth as much as they could. While reporting the prime minister’s defiant speech at an opening ceremony in Sakarya on Dec. 27, Sabah simply ignored the resignations of three AKP deputies that were announced earlier on the same day. When it finally mentioned them in the following days, it portrayed them as acts of dishonourable betrayal influenced by nefarious foreign forces. Then there’s the story of the truck that was discovered in Hatay on Jan. 1 heading to Syria loaded with weapons, National Intelligence Organization (MİT) agents, and members of İHH, a humanitarian aid foundation. Again, the pro-government media initially refused to report the revelation, or the borderline-unconstitutional machinations that prevented local prosecutors from inspecting the truck on its discovery. While it made the headlines of many other media outlets, there was no coverage of the news in Sabah other than straight-faced denials from İHH officials and accusations of “black propaganda.” As a final example, I looked through Sabah on Jan. 9, after 15 provincial police chiefs were removed from their positions as part of the government’s purge of suspected disloyal officials. The news of the changes came at the bottom of page 21, and essentially just consisted of a list of those affected, with no indication of the purge’s wider significance, or mention of the 350 police officers that had been relocated the day before.

You might think that with modern technology there can be no covering up of such essential truths, and that eventually people must surely reach a balanced understanding of the facts. But there’s plenty of contrary evidence in Turkey to confound the Internet utopians. I doubt that people read or click more broadly online than they do in print; in fact, the opposite seems to be true. Of course, there are more opportunities to read about things that challenge one’s views online, but there is also more scope to indulge comforting illusions. Ultimately, the Internet is probably exacerbating Turkey’s polarisation. The last few years have seen the emergence of a huge number of popular news websites of questionable origin peddling aggressively pro-government lines. Like Sabah et al, these sites have a tendency to water down or simply ignore the awkward truths and move on. Similarly blinkered opposition news sites also exist, but it is the pro-government ones that have proliferated so noticeably of late. An unhealthy number of media outlets in Turkey are trapped in echo chambers where dubious facts are taken as unquestionable truths.

But I’d also be careful not to overestimate the ability of “facts” to have much of an impact in such a polarised atmosphere. Nobody’s forcing Sabah’s readers to buy it, and if they wanted something else there are plenty of alternatives to choose from. Rather, there’s a very natural human predilection to pay most attention to the information that coheres with one’s own worldview and screen out the rest. Political confirmation bias is a reality everywhere, but it’s particularly conspicuous in Turkey: people tend to work backwards to make the evidence fit their conclusion, rather than the other way around. It all seems to indicate that the country’s dangerously polarised public debate is only likely to become even more bitter and trenchant. More bad news, basically.

%d bloggers like this: