Ilhan Tanir
Oct 23 2018

Erdoğan's speech captivates international media. What did we learn?

The international media has turned its attention to Turkey since the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 2 when visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The possibility of Khashoggi’s death was announced by the journalist's close friends in Turkey less than 48 hours after he disappeared.

The fact that Khashoggi was a columnist at the Washington Post and had high level contacts in D.C. forced powerful players in the U.S. capital to intervene.  

We have also witnessed Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s media operations meet with the world stage.  

On Tuesday, many journalists in U.S. time zones got up bright and early to catch Erdoğan's weekly address at his parliamentary group due to his promise to reveal all the "naked truths" about the Khashoggi murder. 

Erdoğan did not give any new details about the horrible act at the Saudi Consulate but instead repeated some of the claims he had already been leaking through his media operations for some time.

One of the most anticipated questions was whether he would release the audio or even video that the Turkish sources told media outlets had captured the moments Khashoggi was murdered. Erdoğan did not even mention such a recording in his speech, and this was cause for some disappointment. 

However, the speech was still very important, since during it the accusation of "premeditated" murder and "planned operation" was leveled by the top official in Turkey against the Saudi regime. It was not a coincidence when U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was asked about his thoughts on Erdogan's speech, he highlighted exactly this point and continued saying that Erdogan' accusation "flies in the face of earlier assertions made by the Saudi authorities." 

Erdoğan, while careful to keep King Salman out of this debacle, asked the Saudis and the world to help find out who had given the order for this "savage" killing, pointing once again at the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman without specifically naming him. Erdoğan said that "from the lowest levels to the top levels", as investigative journalist Ümit Kıvanç wrote, whoever involved with this murder should be held accountable, but added that he does not have any doubt about the "sincerity of the King" 

In the first couple of days after Khashoggi went missing, unnamed Turkish officials said that Khashoggi was probably killed and dismembered, information that was soon picked up by the Western media.

Erdoğan, on Tuesday, asked where Khashoggi's body had gone, a question that has been asked all over the world for sometime.

While the New York Times and the Washington Post explained in some detail that Khashoggi was killed in the first week, it was not until Oct. 10 that it was made known how the operation was carried out. On Oct. 8, Daily Sabah stated that a "hit team” of 15 people came to Istanbul on two planes from Saudi Arabia, and on Oct. 9 and 10, the Daily provided the names and pictures of the men entering the airport.

The Washington Post, which has been accusing Erdoğan of "oppression" for a few years due to his increasingly authoritarian tendencies, this time around held him up as an exemplar for "trying to discover the truth" following his relentless leaks on the Khashoggi murder.

As the suspicions and curiosity around the journalist's fate continue to capture the top spot of the agenda, Erdoğan appears to be decisively using this opportunity to undermine bin Salman, one of his biggest rivals in the region. As one pro-AKP columnist who is closely aligned with the Turkish Palace stated in a column that Ankara now thinks, if they cannot force bin Salman out of office at the end of Khashoggi death, Turkey will earn an enemy who will remain as ruler of the Saudis for perhaps the next fifty years. 

Meanwhile, for a leader who has been overseeing a country that jails the most journalists worldwide, surpassing even countries like China, to suddenly be able to appear as a defender of a journalist's cause while simultaneously dismantling his greatest regional rival was just priceless.

Contrary to Erdoğan's regime's unfounded claims and conspiracy theories on many events in recent years, this time we have Erdoğan's regional rival which already admitted the murder of a journalist.

Since 2013 for example, Erdoğan has been using foreign policy as a tool to get elected by blaming the developments in Turkey on foreign countries, mainly via his ever growing media as propaganda machine. Erdoğan blamed Germany for the nationwide anti-government Gezi Protests in the summer of 2013. When corruption was exposed among Erdoğan’s allies and ministers in late 2013 by officers involved with the Gülen Movement, he blamed the United States, since the leader of the movement, Fethullah Gülen, has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999.

During 2017’s referendum campaign, Erdoğan blamed the Dutch and several other European countries for waging a new crusade against “rising” Turkey.

Similar incidents took place time and again during the never-ending election cycle between 2013 and 2018, and with his fiery rhetoric Erdoğan angered many allies in the West and East by and isolated Turkey.

Critical media still existed in Turkey in the first half of 2016, up until the botched coup attempt in July of 2016. However it had been Erdoğan's goal since at least 2007 to consolidate his hold over the media, and he had already made great strides towards that by then. 

Erdoğan's electoral base was already in the hands of his government’s state media, however, this was not enough for the Turkish president. Although the country was weakened after a palace coup that removed then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu from office in early May 2016, Erdogan was still powerful. However, he was not without checks and balances. Democratic barriers existed then that did not allow Erdoğan to get rid of his opponents as quickly as he wanted.

This changed after a foiled coup attempt on July 15, 2016, which Erdoğan called a “gift from God” shortly after it became apparent that he had survived the night. A few days later, he declared a state of emergency which allowed him to rule through presidential decrees, largely bypassing legislative and judiciary oversight.

Erdoğan quickly imprisoned journalists, purged anyone and everyone affiliated with the Gulen Movement and then moved on to purge the state of any kind of opposition as thoroughly as he could. It took him little more effort than a click of his fingers to close down more than 180 media outlets in the weeks following.   

However, Erdoğan has not always run Turkey as an one-man show. Protesters during the 2013 Gezi demonstrations were powerful enough to grab the attention of the international media. It did not take long for the protesters to be demonised by the Erdoğan’s stable of conspiracy theorists on prominent media platforms.

Newspapers close to the government published a spectacular story that said a headscarved woman had been attacked in an Istanbul neighbourhood by so-called Gezi vandals with outlandish details; however, the footage that was promised by Erdoğan supposedly showing the attack took months to emerge in the press, and when it finally did it matched none of the details the president had described of the alleged attack. Nowadays, following years of demonising protestors, even evidence of supporting protests on social media is enough to get one fired or even landed in jail.

Since 2014, Erdoğan’s media has waged a true war on critical journalists and opposition leaders or civil society leaders.

Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party who received more than 6 million votes in the 2015 elections, was declared a "terrorist" after the 2016 coup attempt and has been jailed since. The government began prosecuting even followers of his Twitter account.   

Yet the disappearance of Khashoggi has provided the Erdoğan administration with an opportunity to come out in the name of press freedom.

Erdoğan has forced both Washington and Riyadh to compromise through the tactics of the propaganda machine he has developed over the past five years, and the incident has shown him employ that machine almost flawlessly even on the international stage.

Meanwhile, Riyadh has produced nothing to persuade sceptics that they are innocent, but has instead resorted to various conspiracy theories to go after Turkish claims.

It would seem that there is nothing the West can do but to bow to Turkey’s strongman and watch the show.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.