The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul gave Turkey’s president Erdogan a unique opportunity to present himself as a truth-seeker and to manipulate information about the case in his favor and against Saudi Arabia. We discuss the case with Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir
SHARMINI PERIES: The murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has provided Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an opportunity to redeem his much tarnished reputation. Here is Erdogan addressing the case of Khashoggi’s murder.
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: Blaming some intelligence members for this matter will satisfy neither us nor the international community. The conscience of humanity will only be satisfied once everybody is called into account, from those who gave the orders to those who carried them out. If that’s the case, you are obligated to reveal this local cooperator. You will reveal him. Without these questions being answered, nobody should think the issue will be closed. I told the first delegation that came here about how inadequate the council general was, and I reiterated the same things to the king.
SHARMINI PERIES: Here is the response of Mohammed bin Salman and what he had to say in response to President Erdogan.
MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: First of all, the crime was really painful to all Saudis and I believe it is painful for every human in the world. It is a heinous crime that cannot be justified. Today, Saudi Arabia is carrying out all legal things to finalize the investigation, to cooperate with the Turkish government and to present the perpetrators to the court and to take their judgment. This is the expected thing that all governments would do once they see a crime. Undoubtedly, the cooperation today between the Saudi and Turkish government is unique. And we know that many are trying to use this painful thing to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. I would like to send a message that they will not be able to do that as long as there is a king called King Salman Abdulaziz and a crown prince called Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me now to discuss Turkey’s role in all of this and Erdogan’s grand bargain here is ilhan Tanir. He is a Turkish journalist based in Washington, DC and is the executive editor of Ahval News. Tanir was, in mid ’16, in Washington DC as the reporter for one of Turkey’s last independent secular newspapers, the Cumhuriyet Daily. And he was, of course, targeted by Erdogan, along with his editor and 15 other journalists who were all labeled terrorists because they reported against the state. Some of them were jailed and others were hounded into exile. And we are very pleased to have you here with us, Ilhan. Thank you for joining us.
ILHAN TANIR: Thank you for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Ilhan, you recently wrote in an article in the website Buzzfeed, where you argue that Erdogan is successfully manipulating the Khashoggi murder for his own benefit to advance his own profile internationally, which has suffered quite a bit, also nationally. So, exactly how is it that Erdogan is benefiting from the case if Khashoggi?
ILHAN TANIR: Yes, thank you for pointing that out. First of all, I have to say once again, this was a horrible act against journalist Khashoggi. So, we are putting these aside, we condemn this, we want to never see any kind of act similar to this. But what Erdogan gains from this? Erdogan has been dismantling Turkish media for over a decade. Turkey had a very lively media until a couple years ago. Despite his efforts, Turkey still had a media that represented very different segments of Turkish society. Since the coup attempt in 2016, now basically 90 percent of the media in Turkey is under the thumb of Erdogan.
And Mr. Erdogan is winning in several fronts in this Khashoggi situation. First of all, Mohammed bin Salman and Erdogan have been rivals since the coup in Egypt in 2013. Saudis and the Turks are on the opposite side of the regional balance and the Turkish Katari wing are under the attack of the Saudi, UAE, Egypt and some other Gulf countries. Now that Mr. Erdogan leaking these horrible acts every single day, he has been undermining Mohammed bin Salman. We know that some of the columnists in Turkey, very close to Mr. Erdogan, argued a couple days ago that Mohammed bin Salman might stay in as a Saudi ruler for the next 50 years because he is young. So, that is why the Turkish government is going after him and he’s trying to force him out.
Secondly, as a main point, Mr. Erdogan, who has been dismantling Turkish media, jailing hundreds of journalists. Turkey, for years now, is the country which jails the most journalists, right now there are 176 journalists. And Mr. Erdogan has shut down hundreds of media outlets since 2016. So, he could be the last person in the world who could be classified as friendly to the free media. But now, since Khashoggi is a journalist, he and his officials in Ankara are depicting themselves as if they are somehow deciding journalism or free media, which has nothing to do with what they are doing.
SHARMINI PERIES: Ilhan, you were particularly pleased to critique Erdogan’s record on press freedom. You yourself, being a journalist in Turkey, came under his attacks. Tell us about your own experience as a journalist in Turkey and the kind of persecution that journalists experience – not only you, your colleagues – while in Turkey.
ILHAN TANIR: Yes, unfortunately, while this Khashoggi leak is happening in just the last week, exactly a week ago I woke up in the morning here in Washington, DC and suddenly see a local Turkish court in Istanbul decided to ask Interpol to issue a red notice on me because there is a court case that Mr. Erdogan and his government launched in 2016 against the Cumhuriyet newspaper. I was a correspondent for Cumhuriyet, a secular and independent newspaper of Turkey, one of the very few ones in Turkey now still surviving. Mr. Erdogan already jailed 15 Cumhuriyet journalists, some of them jailed for nine, ten months, some of them two years.
And since myself and former editor in chief, Can Dundar, was in Germany, they separated all cases. And now, apparently, they’re going to ask Interpol to issue red notices. Why? Journalists, of course, should be held accountable if they are committing a crime. When we are looking at the indictment the Turkish court issued for me, about 18-20 pages, and there are about 30 of my Tweets, I’ve got about 75,000 Tweets now. And in those Tweets, did I praise terrorism, did I praise the Gulen movement that Mr. Erdogan classifies as it? You cannot see none of those.
Or, they accuse me as a PKK, pro-Kurdish terror organization, as a propagandist. Why? Because I gave an interview to a Kurdish outlet, the same outlet Mr. Brett McGurk, U.S. Special Envoy gave an interview. So, these are laughable accusations that Mr. Erdogan has been, and his government, levelling what they gain from it. Like myself, there are many journalists in Turkey, if you are not lucky, if you are in Turkey you go to jails, you lose your job and you stop writing.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, these attacks on independent media and also on journalists, and specifically, especially the ones you’re talking about, has had a tremendous effect in terms of press freedom in the country. Now, how is Erdogan manipulating the situation? We know that after the so-called coup against him, he was able to take greater control of the state media, tried to exile as many independent journalists as he could. But he’s also expanding his base using the media. And he’s a greater profile worldwide using his media and this Khashoggi case is a case in point. So, describe to us how he has used this case of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in order to advance his own profile in the country as well as, obviously, globally.
ILHAN TANIR: So, first of all, as you pointed out, he has been using his media, especially since 2013, against protests in Turkey when a group of people wanted to defend the final green area in the Tatsumi in the heart of Istanbul that protests spread across Turkey. That is when Mr. Erdogan started his war against the critical journalists. Since that operation expanded his media in Turkey which you know he has basically night per cent of the media especially he’s in control of a state church TVs and news agencies.
As you can guess, these are the entities invested by millions, while other independent media in Turkey are just trying to survive or they pay very little because even the private enterprises are not allowed to give any kind of access to these critical outlets, because if they give, then they’re under the pressure. Yes, Mr. Erdogan has been using his made the operation. His media operation are going after, first of all, critical journalists and civil society organizations and any kind of opposition leaders they have been going after with the powerful intelligence backing behind them.
They’ve use conspiracy theories many times, unfounded, and fake news, as we call it now. Actually Mr. Erdogan’s media discovered conspiracy theories in 2013 and they’ve been using it. In this Khashoggi affair, one of his main rivals in the region apparently made a big mistake, big error, and they gave him basically a free hand to Mr. Erdogan. Whether Mr. Erdogan’s intel operations were already tipped off and they started listening in the Saudi Consulate or they were already listening to them and just randomly they picked up, for whatever the reason, Mr. Erdogan now appears to have moral high ground and appears to have the upper hand because, again, it seems did this.
They already admitted they killed Khashoggi, and now apparently, they are doing some kind of investigation. And Mr. Erdogan, by using news media and media operations, has been doing this list to his own media, to his officials. He now appears to be, again, going after some crime and they are appearing as if they care about journalists. Just one thing I wanted to add – I’m just curious, if in Istanbul there was a Qatari dissident journalist, if something happened to him at the Qatari Consulate in Istanbul, how much of that event or crime would we have heard without Mr. Erdogan’s permission, since Qatar and Turkey very close? That is a question mark.
SHARMINI PERIES: And finally, Ilhan, what is President Erdogan’s ultimate goal in all of this, what is he hoping to achieve?
ILHAN TANIR: For the last couple years, Turkey has been going from one election to another election. There are two general elections and presidential elections. And all of these, Mr. Erdogan used many of the foreign policy issues domestically. And in this process, he severed ties with several EU countries, his relations with the EU got worse, his relation with the U.S. and many other countries in the region. Basically, Mr. Erdogan, yes, he got what he wanted as a presidential system. He holds the whole Turkish system now, he’s the one executive person in the Turkish Parliament, traditionally, historically a very important part of the Turkish political system now out of the picture and there’s no checks and balances.
But in this process, Mr. Erdogan isolated himself and his economy is doing very badly. Everybody, including very reputable and respected economists, predict that Mr. Erdogan’s country’s troubles are just starting now. And now, I think with this Khashoggi affair, he’s making a lot of progress to be integrated again. It released this American pastor just last week, coinciding with the Khashoggi situation. I think what he wants is, again, he wants to be part of the respected statesmen. He wants to be part of the Western world and he wants to be part of the international community and he wants to be able to, again, visit the Western capitals and show off. I think this is what he’s gaining right now, as again, he has the upper hand and higher moral ground due to this hideous, horrible act apparently committed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Ilhan, I thank you so much for joining us today. I’ve been speaking with a journalist Ilhan Tanir in Washington, DC. He is a journalist based in Washington, DC and the executive editor of Ahval news service. I thank you so much for joining us today.
ILHAN TANIR: Thanks for having me again.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the The Real News Network.