In the midst of a pandemic alarm, Turkish government is able – as always- to dedicate time and effort to orchestrate operations to silence the opposition media. Last week, a chain of arrests and the subsequent court decisions to imprison six journalists came onto the country’s agenda. The court ruling includes the closure of OdaTV, a popular left nationalist digital news outlet. 

The charge this time is neither “separatism” nor “insulting the president” but the disclosure of the identity of an operative of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) who had been killed in action in Libya. On March 3, OdaTV published images sourced from their correspondent Hülya Kılınç of the funeral of the intelligence officer, which was not accompanied by the official ceremonies. The news story was followed by journalist Murat Demirağ of another opposition newspaper, Yeniçağ, and was also reported by the pro-Kurdish daily Yeni Yaşam. 

The court’s charges are based on an article of the MİT code that prohibits the disclosure of the identities of intelligence personnel by the media. In addition to the reporting journalists, the court also ruled for the imprisonment of OdaTV’s news director Barış Terkoğlu and editor-in-chief Barış Pehlivan, along with two journalists holding the same positions in Yeni Yaşam, Aydın Keser and Ferhat Çelik. 

OdaTV lawyers object to the arrests, arguing that the name of the agent had already been made public by the İYİ Party deputy Ümit Özdağ on Feb. 26 in a public statement, which criticized President Erdoğan’s comments referring to Turkish casualties in Libya as “we have one or two martyrs from Libya”. Lawyers also argued that the OdaTV report only mentions the first name of the late intelligence agent, not giving his full identity.

The pro-Erdoğan media, which is for sometime Turkey’s mainstream, applaud the arrests. “Are you doing espionage or journalism?” asked daily Akit; “Scandal from the dark OdaTV: they exposed the MIT operative” wrote Yeni Şafak,“Foreign intelligence organizations will identify the martyr’s colleagues through OdaTV’s report”.

In response, defiant journalist Murat Demirağ claims that there is a conspiracy by the “Pelikan group” to silence secular-nationalist journalism. Pelikan is the public name of a think tank organization, which develops projects and ideas for the government and lobbies on behalf of the government. According to the Wikileaks revelations, the group is financed by state funds via President Erdoğan’s son-in-law and Minister of Finance Berat Albayrak. Pelikan is notorious for social media manipulation and character assassinations. A Pelikan report produced and disseminated back in 2016 led to the resignation of the then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

According to Soner Yalçın, the founder of OdaTV, the current arrests are a continuation of the 2011 OdaTV trials, when Barış Terkoğlu and himself among others, were charged and imprisoned by the Gülenist judiciary. The OdaTV trial, along with Ergenekon and Balyoz trials concluded with acquittals after Fethullah Gülen’s cadres that dominated the judiciary and the security bureaucracy fell out of Erdoğan’s favour, to be stigmatized as “the parallel state” and FETÖ. Yalçın argues that repentant Gülenists, who covertly continue their loyalty to Gülen, have conspired for the imprisonment of Terkoğlu and Pehlivan in order to conclude their unfinished business. These arrests, he points out, will serve their clandestine chief Fethullah Gülen to degrade Turkey’s image further as a country jailing its opposition journalists. 

In fact, a former Gülenist turned passionate anti-FETÖ figure, Ersoy Dede of the daily Star, was first to label the OdaTV story as an “counter-espionage operation”, prompting the prosecutors to act. Another former Gülen disciple, Cem Küçük of Türkiye newspaper, has been campaigning with Dede for the arrest of Soner Yalçın, because they claim the latter to be the “brain” behind OdaTV.

“Metastasis” and “The Spiral”

The work of the jailed journalists may be the key to understanding the hostility from the pro-government circles. Terkoğlu and Pehlivan of OdaTV are the co-authors of the 2019 book “Metastaz” (Metastasis) in which they investigate how, in the post-15 July 2016 environment, different religious sects have gained positions in the state structure by filling the void that resulted from the purging of the Gülenists. The book also claims that Gülenists, by declaring to have changed their loyalties, have mostly maintained their positions of power and privilege. The recently published “Sarmal” (The Spiral) by Murat Ağırel narrates the infiltration by the pro-Islamist groups into the state bureaucracy since the 1950s with the aim of “seizing the state apparatus as a whole”. Ağırel has emphasized the synchronicity between his arrest and the publication of “Sarmal”. 

From the leader of opposition Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to journalist unions, and even from among pro-government journalists, objections have been raised against the recent arrest and imprisonment of the six opposition journalists. The court’s decision to remand them in custody, they argue, has been used as a weapon of intimidation against the opposition. The critiques view these arrests as an operation to design the media in a way that only the “Palace’s virtual reality” as opposed to the facts, are heard by the public. In this view, the legal charge of disclosure of the identity of an intelligence agent is only a pretext to silence the opposition and therefore this operation is an assault against the freedom of the press.

War among “deep state” factions

For the journalistic community, OdaTV represents more than just another media outlet. With their style of reporting (revealing conspiracies, uncovering the “true” identities, exposing secret connections, etc.) and their alleged sources of information OdaTV gives the impression that that it acts on behalf of or in parallel with certain important figures of the Turkish state apparatus, including the intelligence service, the military and the security bureaucracy. This impression vindicates the claims that the specific target of the recent arrests was Terkoğlu and Pehlivan and, in their personalities, a certain wing of the bureaucratic structure, which is influential in the determination of both the state’s domestic and international positions.

From this “deep” point of view, the first argument derives from the coincidence of Erdoğan’s Kremlin visit and the current arrests the conclusion that the OdaTV operation indicates a turn against the “Eurasionist” elements of the deep state structure. The secular/Eurasian wing of the Turkish state structure suffered a major blow between 2007 and 2015 through Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations. The 2011 OdaTV trial was a part of this operation. Since the failed 2016 coup attempt, a rapprochement between these elements and Erdoğan have been observed. The secularist/Eurasionists have been pressing for an “official ideology” and strategy which moves Turkey away from the NATO towards Russia. In fact, there have been significant developments to that effect, including the Sochi and Astana summits on the Syrian civil war, the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system and energy contracts between the two countries. However, with the recent face off in Idlib between the Turkish army and Russian airforce and the consequent Turkish losses, Erdoğan may be considering abandoning the pro-Russian stance and a retreat under NATO’s umbrella, Terkoğlu and Pehlivan maybe becoming the first symbolic casualties of this shift, as the outcomes of the recent Kremlin visit indicate.

Some observers accept this conclusion but emphasize the need to go even “deeper” to relate these arrests, taking into account recent reports of discontent within the military. They refer to the Rand Corporation’s recent report on Turkey which insinuates the possibility of a coup to be carried out by the mid-ranking cadres of the Turkish military. Former Chief of Staff İlker Başbuğ’s recent call for the exposure of the political wing of the FETÖ movement found support from the leader of the opposition Kılıçdaroğlu and put the Erdoğan administration in a difficult position. Erdoğan certainly viewed this move as the beginning of the end of the support from Turkish military’s secularist wing. From this perspective, the OdaTV operation may be marking the commencement of a pre-emptive strike by Erdoğan against his secularist “deep state” allies, whom he suspects of turning against him.

A third layer of the interpretation of the OdaTV affair suggests that the anti-Russian and anti-Eurasianist shift, and the turn against the secularist elements of the military and security bureaucracy do not merely originate from the Rand Corporation’s report but a tendency to unite the opposition in an anti-Erdoğan bloc. Disillusioned by Erdoğan’s national and international tactical shifts, the Eurasionists and the secularist bloc of military officers have been crossing into the opposition ranks particularly since the last year’s municipal elections. 

An indication of this shift consists in Soner Yalçın’s criticism of the court decision in February to re-arrest Osman Kavala immediately after his acquittal. This defence came as a surprise to those who are familiar with Yalçın’s and the OdaTV circle’s anti-liberal stance. In the past, they provided most of the arguments for Erdoğan to degrade civil rights activities such as those of Kavala as foreign intelligence services’ operations. These moves indicate the broadening of the opposition bloc and it’s perception by Erdoğan is certainly far more threatening than the other scenarios. In fact, taking the political positions of the six journalists, from Turkish nationalism to the pro-Kurdish movement, this wave of arrests symbolizes Erdoğan’s desire to destroy this broad opposition, as a whole.    

Criminalizing the freedom of expression, the incarceration of journalists and the closure of media institutions no longer have the news value in Turkey, the prisons of which currently host at least 91 journalists for what they reported. But when the subject matter is OdaTV, there is always an additional dimension, which guarantees to promise a story that will generate headlines.