Tur­key pres­i­dent’s fake news cam­paign

The Phnom Penh Post - - OPINION - Jack­son Diehl

ON JULY 15, 2016, an Amer­i­can col­lege pro­fes­sor named Henri Barkey con­vened a work­shop about Iran at a ho­tel on an is­land near Is­tan­bul. That night, ele­ments of the Turk­ish mil­i­tary at­tempted a coup against Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan that quickly failed but trig­gered a mas­sive cam­paign of re­pres­sion that con­tin­ues to this day. Barkey went through with his con­fer­ence, spent a cou­ple of days in Is­tan­bul and flew home.

To Barkey’s as­ton­ish­ment, he soon be­came a tar­get of the world’s new­est po­lit­i­cal weapon: fake news, in the form of a fever­ish, gov­ern­ment-spon­sored cam­paign. Pro-Er­do­gan me­dia claimed Barkey was on the is­land of Buyukada not to dis­cuss Iran’s for­eign re­la­tions with fel­low aca­demics but to di­rect the coup op­er­a­tion on be­half of the CIA.

To those who know the pro­fes­sor, a stereo­typ­i­cally tweedy 63-year-old in­tel­lec­tual who has com­bined teach­ing at Le­high Univer­sity with stints at Wash­ing­ton think tanks and the State Depart­ment pol­icy planning staff, the claims were laugh­able. But the con­se­quences have not been. The five Turk­ish schol­ars who at­tended the con­fer­ence have been de­famed and stripped of their pass­ports; one was de­tained for two weeks.

On Fri­day, the Turk­ish press re­ported that a pros­e­cu­tor had is­sued a war­rant for Barkey’s ar­rest. The in­dict­ment also charges Metin Topuz, a US con­sular em­ployee whose de­ten­tion sev­eral weeks ago trig­gered a diplo­matic spat in which both coun­tries tem­po­rar­ily sus­pended the is­suance of visas. Topuz did not at­tend the con­fer­ence, and Barkey says he has never met him.

Last month, one of Tur­key’s best-known phi­lan­thropists and lib­eral ac­tivists, Os­man Kavala, was ar­rested and jailed. One of the two charges against him is “con­tact with Henri Jak Barkey and for­eign­ers who were among the or­ga­niz­ers of the [ July 15,

2016] coup at­tempt”, ac­cord­ing to court pa­pers. Kavala was also not at the con­fer­ence, but Barkey says they spoke briefly at a res­tau­rant in Is­tan­bul. “Know­ing me,” the pro­fes­sor rue­fully told me, “is enough to send some­one to jail for life.”

Kavala, Topuz and Barkey are just three among some 150,000 peo­ple im­pris­oned, fired or sanc­tioned by Er­do­gan’s gov­ern­ment in the past 16 months, in­clud­ing 150 jour­nal­ists and 6,000 univer­sity em­ploy­ees. But the case is a good ex­am­ple of how fake news has be­come a tool for au­thor­i­tar­ian govern­ments.

The first les­son is that not just facts but ba­sic plau­si­bil­ity are un­im­por­tant when con­coct­ing charges. So­cial me­dia can be used to make any­thing sound con­vinc­ing to the fol­low­ers of a Trump or Er­do­gan. The Turk­ish ruler’s pro­pa­gan­dists claimed, for ex­am­ple, that Barkey en­listed the noto- ri­ous con­victed mur­derer Scott Peter­son as mus­cle. Peter­son is im­pris­oned in Cal­i­for­nia. But no mat­ter: An Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist also named Scott Peter­son hap­pened to be at the meet­ing.

Once the fake news is floated, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers can de­mand in­ves­ti­ga­tions while claim­ing they only want to learn the facts. Their ob­jec­tive is not pros­e­cu­tions, but ad­vanc­ing a nar­ra­tive. In Er­do­gan’s case, the point is to sug­gest that the US is re­spon­si­ble for the coup at­tempt – a lie that he is at­tempt­ing to lever­age into con­ces­sions from Wash­ing­ton. Above all, he wants the ex­tra­di­tion of Fethul­lah Gulen, the Penn­syl­va­nia-based cleric ac­cused of mas­ter­mind­ing the coup.

Hence the war­rant for Barkey and ar­rests of Topuz and Kavala, an in­ter­na­tion­ally ad­mired sec­u­lar ac­tivist. Er­do­gan has re­ferred to him as “Tur­key’s [Ge­orge] Soros,” in ref­er­ence to the lib­eral US fi­nancier; he also claimed that Kavala and Topuz are con­nected, with­out ex­pla­na­tion.

That’s the trick: to use fake news with­out ac­cept­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for it. Er­do­gan’s prime min­is­ter, Bi­nali Yildirim, of­fered me an­other demon­stra­tion of that last week when I asked him, dur­ing his visit to Wash­ing­ton, whether the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment re­ally be­lieved Barkey di­rected the coup. “Whether Henri Barkey man­aged the coup or not, I don’t know,” he replied, claim­ing that he was un­aware of the al­le­ga­tion.

He then said Turks were in­clined to be­lieve that the US must have some­thing to do with the coup be­cause of Wash­ing­ton’s fail­ure to hand over Gulen. “Some­times per­cep­tion be­comes more im­por­tant than facts,” he con­cluded.

That, of course, is Er­do­gan’s ob­jec­tive. It’s worth re­call­ing that the pres­i­dent and the me­dia that sup­port him are even now pro­mot­ing the man­i­festly false story that Hil­lary Clin­ton cor­ruptly in­flu­enced the sale of a ura­nium com­pany to Rus­sia and are de­mand­ing a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion. No won­der Trump said as he met the Turk­ish strong­man in Septem­ber, “We’re as close as we have ever been.”

ADEM AL­TAN/AFP

Tur­key’s Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan ar­rives to at­tend a cer­e­mony mark­ing the 78th an­niver­sary of the death of Mustafa Ke­mal Ataturk, founder of mod­ern Tur­key, in Ankara, on Fri­day.

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