Making sense of false media reports on Turkey

Published by Today's Zaman, 6 October 2011

I have never been interested in conspiracy theories or respected those who promote them.

So perhaps this article is the beginning of my own decline, but increasingly I am observing an interesting pattern of implausible news reports about Turkey emerging in the world media at critical junctures.

The first odd report that caught my attention was in a British newspaper, the Telegraph, which claimed that Iran had given $25 million to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for its election campaign. While the Telegraph did not cite any sources, other than a “Western diplomat,” rumors among UK foreign policy circles pointed to Israeli sources. The amount that was said to have been given by Iran was peanuts compared to the riches of the business constituency backing the AKP, which was set to win the elections with or without Iran’s financial support. The claim was also made at a time when the Kemalist state elite were looking under every rock for pretexts to shut down the AKP, but none of these groups took this golden opportunity to bash the AKP. Eventually, the Telegraph issued an apology for the false report.

The second dubious case involves reports citing Pakistani intelligence sources as saying that a Turkish F16 pilot had joined al-Qaeda. Pakistan denied that it had ever discovered such a thing. The symbolism of the news was powerful, as it seemed to indicate that the army -- once the stronghold of secularism in Turkey -- and its most elite units were now becoming Islamists. Ironically, the same staunch secularism ensured that no Islamist or even a devout Muslim could ever have made it that far in the Turkish military. To this day, the number of Turks known to be involved in international terrorism is minuscule compared to the number of British, American, Pakistani, Somali and Saudi citizens known to be.

The third one was just last week. According to reports, the Turkish state tried to make a secret pact with Syria and pledged Turkish support to end the rebellion in the country if President Assad ensured that a quarter of ministerial posts would be given to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Supposedly, Bashar al Assad’s refusal of the deal led to the recent “dramatic worsening” in relations between the two countries.

The same week, there was also news in the Cypriot press that Israeli jets threatened a Turkish vessel searching for natural gas sources in the Mediterranean. Both Israel and Turkey denied that such a skirmish happened. Given the precarious nature of relations between the two countries lately, if such a thing were to happen, Turkey would be sending its entire navy.

In all of these news reports, we see a subtext which attempts to show Turkey as an Islamist country that supports terrorism and has close links with rogue regimes, with a dangerous and sinister agenda to attack Israel and undermine the West. Leaving aside the epistemological problems in justifying the validity of such claims, the main question is who would want to promote such an image, and why? These reports almost always pop up at moments when Turkey is making unusual foreign policy decisions, or finds itself at odds with the interests of particular countries. Sometimes they are the products of sloppy journalism and commentators who see the world through their own ideological lenses.

The other possibility, equally plausible, is that an official spin doctor or a think tank pundit is trying to frame a particular image of Turkey for Western policy makers and public opinion. Misinformation, propaganda and setting the tone and language of the news are common tools used by governments and intelligence services. Some of these reports originate from various anti-AKP circles in Turkey, while some come from anti-Turkish circles in the US and EU and the Middle East. Even Syria tried to disseminate news that Syrians seeking asylum in Turkey had been raped and tortured. The desired outcome, no matter who is pursuing it, is to limit Turkey’s growing influence, undermine its foreign policy initiatives and imprison Turkey in the camp of “evil” countries, which need to be punished, isolated and not granted what they seek.

The bad news is that the average reader, who is exposed only to a small portion of unfolding events in the world, remains vulnerable to being easily manipulated by such news. The good news, however, is that the complexity of the international media, with its multiplicity of sources and technologies, makes such attempts fragile and weak. Ultimately, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, one word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.