Trump joke lays bare abject state of Turkish press

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s trip to see his “good friend” President Donald Trump in Washington turned out to be just the anti-climax many informed observers had expected.

Erdoğan had the chance to repeat his stance on the difference between Kurds and terrorists, this time to an audience of U.S. senators. Trump appeared to claim that his decision to allow a Turkish military operation last month fitted into a “thousand-year process”. The Turkish president’s security detail remained mercifully restrained this time and no protesters were beaten.

Compared to previous visits, this could be counted as a success. Indeed, the Islamist Yeni Şafak led on Thursday morning with a headline on the “new page” on the horizon for U.S.-Turkish relations.

But though other outlets hailed the “lesson” Erdoğan had taught senators on Syrian Kurds, no progress was made on any of the rifts holding the countries apart.

In fact, the most exciting development came during the press conference, when Trump asked for a Turkish reporter to ask him a question.

Picking up on Trump’s call for a friendly reporter to ask the question, Senator Lindsey Graham quipped that “there aren’t any others left” to an American journalist.

Erdoğan called for Sabah columnist Hilal Kaplan, who stepped up to ask a question that exactly mirrored the Turkish president’s talking points.

“Are you sure you’re a reporter?” the U.S. president asked Kaplan after requesting another question for Erdoğan. “You don’t work for Turkey, with that question?”

The joke being that Kaplan is a notoriously partisan reporter whose links to the Bosphorus Global think tank places her, many believe, at the centre of an influential clique of journalists and opinion leaders who use their media positions to push the agenda of Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak.

With journalists like these asking the questions abroad, the media scene back home continues to be depressingly bleak.

Take the journalists who went to the Black Sea town of Eynesil this week to investigate the suspicious death of Rabia Naz Vatan, an 11-year-old girl who was found fatally injured in April 2018 outside her family home.

The police quickly ruled the death a suicide, but her father Şaban Vatan says evidence has been overlooked that she was hit by a car driven by relatives of the Eynesil mayor. Vatan believes police have been covering up the truth about his daughter’s death to protect the ruling Justice and Development Party politician.

Journalists Canan Coşkun and Kazım Kızıl were detained by police while filming in the Black Sea town, where they had met a witness about Rabia Naz’s death. Coşkun has been charged with "blackmailing, threat, causing injury on purpose, insult, and depriving a person of his/her freedom", according to local media reports.

Because in today’s Turkey, reporting a certain kind of news is virtually banned. A columnist for Sabah reported this month that the government was preparing legislation that would make spreading “false and misleading information” about the economy an offence carrying a jail sentence of up to five years.

When a panel on Turkish channel HaberTürk discussed the recent spate of incidents involving family suicides and murder-suicides, we saw an example of the pressure journalists feel to censor their views.

One of the speakers wondered what could have motivated the three incidents in the space of a week, asking aloud if the economy could have played a part. “It can’t be the economy, as the economy is fine,” quipped academic Ahmet Kasım Han. “Don’t stir things up,” his co-panellist warned him.

So what can Turkish outlets report? Look to A Haber’s “exclusive report” on Wednesday to find out: The story of a baby born at the start of last month’s Operation Peace Spring. “He didn’t cry as he was born, and this is how he greeted those waiting for him,” the voiceover said. The image on the screen shows the newborn child raising a hand towards his head. The subtitle reads “he gave a military salute the moment he was born.”