Can any Turkish opposition escape the terrorist label?

Turkey’s staunchly pro-Erdoğan newspaper Akşam received more than 2,000 angry reactions from readers for branding a retired Turkish lieutenant colonel whose brother was killed in a terror attack as a “terror supporter,” after he joined the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“FETÖ and PKK-supporter former Lieutenant Colonel Mehmet Alkan joined CHP”

The paper later changed its headline, which now reads “Former Lieutenant Colonel Alkan, who received the full support of the FETÖ and PKK, joins the CHP.”

Pro-government outlets Sabah and A Haber also followed suit and reported along the same lines, accusing Alkan of links with the Gülen Movement, which the Turkish government calls the “Fethullahist Terror Organisation” (FETÖ) responsible for the failed July 2016 coup attempt, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has staged attacks within Turkey for 30 years – including the one that killed Alkan’s own brother.

Turkey is no stranger to its ruling party targeting dissent, especially in the media, but the news reports on Alkan represents an extreme case in which the country’s pro-Erdoğan media portrays the brother of a fallen soldier as a terrorist for his support for the opposition party.

Alkan’s brother Captain Ali Alkan was killed on a PKK attack to an army base in Şırnak, Southeast Turkey, on August 21, 2015.

Ali Alkan’s funeral gathered thousands in his hometown, Osmaniye, where six more soldiers had returned home in coffins that month. Before the ceremony, Alkan’s relatives turned away the local AKP politicians who came to attend, blaming the government's Kurdish policy for their son’s death, while a wreath sent by President Erdoğan was torn into pieces by the crowd.

In an emotional moment, Mehmet Alkan stood by the flag-draped coffin and uttered one of the strongest criticisms of Erdoğan's security policy in the run up to the Nov. 2015 general elections:

Those who were saying ‘peace process’ yesterday; why are they now saying war?... Who is his murderer?

Those who live in palaces, surrounded by 30 bodyguards and go around in armoured vehicles say that they want to be martyrs. No way! If you want to become martyrs, then you should go there [the conflict zone].

A long-term peace process had ended with the renewed outbreak of conflict mere months earlier; Energy Minister Taner Yıldız had responded with a speech on the virtues of martyrdom in service to one’s country.

A day after the funeral, two people were arrested for 'insulting the president' at the ceremony – a crime now punishable by up to four years’ imprisonment. Nearly 2,000 similar cases were opened against Turkish citizens around that time.

With the renewed outbreak of conflict, the Supreme Council of Radio and Television sent media outlets a statement paraphrasing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher calling the media the “oxygen” of terror: from now on, military funerals were to be played down as much as possible.

Alkan, however, received more coverage in the pro-Erdoğan media – notably by Cem Küçük, a Star newspaper columnist known for targeting critical journalists. Küçük claimed Alkan’s criticism of government policy was similar to that of the Gülenists, making the first association between him and “terror organisations”.

The internal army review on Mehmet Alkan, for his public outburst in uniform, resulted in a mere warning. However, during the purge that followed the last year's coup attempt, he was listed among the 50,000 state employees dismissed by a government decree, with no reason provided and no right to appeal.