Michael Rubin: Twelve Questions Turkish Journalists Dare Not Ask

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey's prime minister, greets supporters while flanked by his wife, Emine, upon arrival at Esenboga Airport in Ankara on December 24, 2013. With Turkish print, radio and television journalism on life support, Michael Rubin writes, what are the questions that Turkish journalists discuss but are not allowed to ask? Umit Bektas/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Freedom of the press has been one of the chief casualties of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule. He has confiscated newspapers, sued their editors and imprisoned journalists.

Reporters Without Frontiers ranks Turkey's press freedom 151st in the world out of 180, below Vladimir Putin's Russia. In the forthcoming year, as Erdogan's state of emergency and purge continue, Turkey's ranking will likely fall further, perhaps even below the Islamic Republic of Iran.

With Turkish print, radio, and television journalism on life support, what are the questions that journalists discuss behind the scenes (but on which they are not allowed to report)?

Here are just a few:

1. How did Erdogan become a billionaire?

Erdogan was born to a relatively poor family in Rize, along the Black Sea. His father was in the coast guard and worked at sea. Erdogan at one point even sold snacks on the street to make extra cash.

He graduated from a religious school in 1973 and immediately embarked on a political career, eventually becoming mayor of Istanbul and, after a brief stint in prison for religious incitement, prime minister and now president. So here's the question: How did a man like Erdogan become a billionaire several times over?

Turks have a pretty good idea: Erdogan faced 13 corruption probes as a result of his time as mayor; parliamentary immunity meant these were never resolved. The U.S. Embassy reported that he had at least eight Swiss bank accounts.

He explained that some wealth was the result of wedding gifts for his son. Tape recordings, genuine but leaked illegally, show him discussing how to liquidate perhaps a billion dollars in cash. Erdogan used his power over the courts to quash the case and arrest prosecutors and judges who sought to pursue it.

Similar questions about mysterious gains might be asked about his son Bilal (and what exactly happened to Bilal in Italy?) as well as his son Burak, whose whereabouts are a mystery.

Any journalist living in Turkey who seeks to dig into the sources of Erdogan's and his family members' wealth, however, would find themselves behind bars for decades to come.

2. Where is Erdogan's university diploma?

Erdogan's official biography says he received a degree in 1981 from the Department of Economic and Commercial Sciences at Marmara University. Here's the problem: No such department has ever existed at Marmara University.

In 1982, the university opened a Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences, but there is no record of Erdogan ever attending it. A four-year degree is a prerequisite for the presidency.

If Erdogan lied about having a degree, then can he remain as president? Of course, that assumes rule of law still matters in Turkey. Cengiz Çandar, an Erdogan apologist-turned-critic, has more here.

3. Is there another story behind the coup attempt?

The July 15 coup attempt, which Erdogan called "a gift from God," remains Turkey's biggest news story of the year. Within hours, Erdogan accused followers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic thinker with whom he had found common cause until 2013, with organizing the attempted coup.

Some followers of Gülen were among those that took part, but the Turkish government has yet to present evidence formally to U.S. authorities pointing to Gülen's complicity.

There are many questions that point to others' culpability. Many senior military officials involved were not followers of Gülen; indeed, some were far closer to the ruling party.

Nor has Erdogan himself come clean about his whereabouts between 5 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. the day of the coup. Indeed, it seems Erdogan knew about the attempt in advance and may have even encouraged it to provide an excuse to crack down. In a normal country, this would be the subject of a press inquiry; in Turkey, journalists just take Erdogan at his word.

Other coup-related issues that the Turkish press is forbidden to investigate involve who was responsible for the deaths of civilians on the evening of the coup. There is anecdotal evidence that many civilians killed were shot seemingly at random by a special unit not under the command of the ordinary military structure.

Here, many questions remain about the actions of the SADAT International Defense Consulting company, which some Turks reported had been allegedly training a secret army before the coup attempt to serve Erdogan alone, a sort of Turkish equivalent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Erdogan's subsequent appointment of Adnan Tanriverdi, the head of SADAT, to be his military counsel only adds to the questions. Tanriverdi was dismissed by the Turkish General Staff during the 1997 soft coup and seems bent on revenge against the secular order.

4. If there is a FETO, is there also an ETO?

It's one thing to oppose Gülen and resent his movement; it's another thing to call them a terrorist group on the scale of the Islamic State (ISIS) or Al-Qaeda. Erdogan's renaming the Hizmet movement as the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETO) is simply silly. For journalists to go along with it is unprofessional.

But let's assume for a moment that the terror definition is valid. Erdogan justifies the designation in the fact that FETO members pledge allegiance to Gülen and have formed a patronage network for their own benefit and power. If that's the case, how is that different from the followers of Erdogan?

If it is permissible to talk about FETO as a terror group, would it be equally acceptable to refer to the Erdoganist Terror Organization (ETO)? If not, is there a double standard or political filter through which all Turkish reporting must go?

5. If Gülen is a terrorist, why did Erdogan work with him before 2013?

When it comes to network and religious philosophy, there is little difference between pre-2013 Gülen and post-2013 Gülen. Nor is there a difference between pre- and post-2013 Erdogan. The only thing that differs between now and then was political alliance. Erdogan insists that Gülen is a master terrorist.

If so, and as Gülen is the same man now as he was in the first decade of Erdogan's rule, why did Erdogan ally so closely to him?

6. Why is it OK to report on PKK attacks but not on ISIS?

Turkey faces challenges from both the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) insurgency, leftist groups like the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C) and Islamist groups like ISIS. Each has staged attacks inside Turkey.

Here's the thing: When the PKK or fringe Kurdish groups attack, it often dominates the headlines in Turkey for days as the investigation continues, authorities name suspects, etc. The same holds true for the DHKP-C, which attacked the U.S. Embassy in Ankara back in 2013. But when ISIS has attacked, the Turkish government has put an embargo on reports about the investigation.

Is there a reason why the Turkish government seeks to suppress word of Islamist violence but allow reports of Kurdish violence to dominate the headlines?

7. Why did Turkish intelligence help the Nusra Front? And ISIS?

Along the same lines, evidence is overwhelming that both the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and ISIS itself have received arms, support and equipment from authorities in Turkey.

When journalists broke the story—and provided photographic evidence—Erdogan's response was to arrest the editor of the newspaper that published the scoop. Likewise, when Turkish soldiers stopped an arms shipment into Syria, Erdogan ordered the soldiers' arrest rather than the smugglers'. Censoring a story doesn't make it false; it only raises more questions.

8. Was a Turkish death squad behind the Paris assassinations?

In 2013, an assassination executed three Kurdish activists in their office in Paris. All three were PKK members. While the United States and Turkey designate the PKK as a terrorist group, Turkey was involved in high-profile peace talks with the PKK at the time. The French captured Omer Guney, a 32-year-old Turk who had arrived in France at age 9.

Telephone intercepts after the murders show him calling back to handlers in Turkey's intelligence agency, which raises a question: Did Turkey conduct assassinations of dissidents in the capital of a fellow NATO member?

9. Why did Erdogan appoint his son-in-law oil minister?

Berat Albayrak, Erdogan's 37-year-old son-in-law, became Turkey's energy minister on November 24, 2015. Was he the best qualified? Or were other factors at play?

Given Erdogan's penchant for negotiating energy deals with leaders like Putin and de facto Kurdish Regional President Masoud Barzani without civil servants in the room, was Albayrak's appointment a way to arrange kickbacks and keep them in the family?

Or as Erdogan purges former allies from leadership positions in his political party in fits of paranoid rage, is he grooming family members to take their positions? Could Albayrak be a prime minister-in-waiting? Will Turkey become a hereditary republic like Syria and like what former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sought?

10. Can we talk about Erdogan's associations?

Erdogan keeps curious company. His friends might receive the red carpet back in Turkey, but for most other people, they are simply "foes."

First, there was Yasin al-Qadi, a Saudi businessman whom the U.S. Treasury Department said had alleged ties to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden until 2014. In July 2006, at a time when even the United Nations's designation of al-Qadi still applied, Erdogan declared, "I know Mr. Qadi. I believe in him as I believe in myself. For Mr. Qadi to associate with a terrorist organization, or support one, is impossible."

Putting aside the debate over Qadi, perhaps it is worthwhile to know how Erdogan first got to know him and the nature of their relationship. That goes double, given the association of Erdogan's son Bilal with Qadi while the sanctions still applied. That's just the tip of the iceberg, however.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is among Afghanistan's worst actors. He gained fame during the initial mujahedeen struggle as the only Afghan warlord who never won a battle against the Soviets. Instead, he would always just attack whichever Afghan competitor was on top.

It was Hekmatyar who started the civil war in 1992 after the Soviet withdrawal. In more recent years, he has allied himself with the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Erdogan. How did Erdogan meet and come to know Hekmatyar, whom Turkey has since designated a terrorist?

There's also, of course, Khalid Meshaal (Hamas's most militant leader), Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and personal business deals with Putin. Erdogan, in short, seems to have a set of friends radically different from those of a normal NATO leader.

When did they begin? How did such friendships develop? Is the relationship one of politics, business or both?

11. What deal have you struck with Putin?

A year ago, Russia-Turkey relations were at their lowest point since the Cold War, but after an August meeting, the two leaders decided to bury the hatchet. There followed a pipeline deal and talks on the Turkish purchase of a Russian missile system. Was there anything more?

Did Erdogan discuss a possible basing agreement with Russia, for example, in Mersin, Turkey? While it might sound far-fetched, did Putin ever broach placing tactical Russian nuclear arms in Turkey? On a more personal level, does Erdogan have any money in Russian banks? Are those assets personal or state? Has Russia made access to them part of its leverage in its own dealmaking with Erdogan?

12. What explains the court's 2008 refusal to close the AKP?

In 2008, Turkey's constitutional court considered penalties against Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, that might have resulted in the party's dissolution. But a last-minute switch by one justice meant the AKP remained in place.

Many Turks talk about how a businessman, long hounded by Erdogan, wired money into that justice's account just before the vote. What really happened that day? Did money change hands? If so, why? And did Erdogan subsequently stop Turkish authorities from questioning that businessman's past actions?

Asking questions is not the same as answering them. But a healthy democracy requires a healthy press. It reflects poorly on Turkey's press freedom that such important issues touching on corruption, security and the economy are placed off-limits.

Certainly, if there's nothing to hide, why shouldn't Turkish journalists be allowed to investigate these questions and more?

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics and teaches classes on Iran, terrorism and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen and prewar and postwar Iraq, and he spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing With the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, examines a half-century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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