Access denied: Turkey’s silence on ISIS burning of two soldiers

*Source: The Indian Express

On Thursday, December 22, Turkey experienced yet another national panic attack, with the news of two Turkish soldiers having been abducted and executed by Islamic State (IS) forces near al-Bab. Days after the execution, authorities and the media remain strangely silent.

The brutal video published by IS shows the Turkish soldiers being dragged out of cages on a leash in army uniform, making a speech condemning Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the country’s intervention in Syria. The two men were then burned to death with the use of a fuse.

Since the video was released, the public has been divided into two opposite camps: one group believes that the executions were real, while the other group is defending the idea that IS produced a fake video in order to terrorise Turkey’s citizens. Perhaps most striking though is the distinctive change in media and government rhetoric in approaching the tragic deaths of these two soldiers: seemingly no longer martyrs, but anomalies, hidden from the public eye.

An online search about the topic in Turkish yields hundreds of videos with captions supporting both viewpoints (although most, including those from legitimate media sources, are not reachable without a VPN connection). In any case, it is evident that this “alleged” incident has become a matter of belief and opinion, rather than one of facts and news.

So far, we know very little. In the video, the two soldiers claim that their names are Sefer Taş and Fethi Şahin. Sefer Taş was reported missing after clashes broke out between IS and Turkish forces at the Kilis border post on September 1, 2015. Taş’s family have since then asked for help in finding their son. They spoke to Sputnik after the video was released, declaring that no official explanation had been provided and that members of the family have had a nervous breakdown.

The second captive, Fethi Şahin claims in the video to be a gendarmerie intelligence officer and a prisoner of IS for four months. However, the fact that there are no reports of Şahin going missing, and the pro-IS content shared on a Facebook page under Şahin’s name have sparked further debate about whether the broadcast images, or at least the identities of the subjects, were real. The Ministry of Defence has claimed “they are investigating”; however the majority of government and military officials have remained mute.

On Friday, December 23, members of a civilian organisation called Halkevleri (People’s Houses) gathered at Galatasaray Square in Istanbul, in order to protest the executions and make a press statement about Turkey’s Syria policies. According to Cumhuriyet, 18 people were immediately arrested by the police, without getting the chance to hold the protest.

As has become tradition in Turkey, access to related websites was either denied or limited almost immediately, and the nation’s overall internet connection was slowed down after the video broke out. Attempts to censor the video are understandable to an extent: the gruesome content of the video is perhaps the only universal reason that would justify the need to remove it from a widely accessible medium such as the internet. The uncertainty surrounding the content of the video might also serve as a plausible reason.

In the meantime, the responsibility to research the background of the incident, inform the public according to available knowledge and demand answers from the government falls, as always, on print and broadcast media. Yet, almost a week after the news broke out online, mainstream media outlets in Turkey continue with their silence, despite coverage by international sources.

Print media fails in judging newsworthiness

Since the video was broadcast in the late hours of December 22, it would be unfair to judge newspapers’ editorial decisions through their headlines on December 23. Print media simply lacks that kind of reflexivity; with acceptable reasons. However, it is important to compare coverage of the death of 16 members of the Operation Euphrates Shield in al-Bab – Turkey’s ongoing military operation in Syria – which came just one day before the execution video was released. The attack, from the same locale as the video, made it to several newspapers’ headlines on the same day.

In a country where the concept of “martyrdom” has always been an emotional subject and is increasingly becoming a tool of political rhetoric, the execution of two soldiers in a style that calls to mind the dark ages should have made its mark on the front pages of all mainstream newspapers. Yet Hürriyet, Posta, Milliyet, and Vatan simply referenced ‘Turkey’s most important operation against DAEŞ’ and ‘bid farewell to the martyrs.’

Nationalist daily Akşam took a different perspective with a sub-headline proclaiming: ‘We broke the back of DAEŞ’, and focused on the number of deaths of IS and YPG members. Pro-government daily Sabah tellingly highlighted President Erdoğan’s words: “If we stop, we will go back to Sèvres,” in reference to a key treaty which helped seal the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and triggered the Turkish national independence war. In a speech the day before, Erdoğan had argued that Turkey is fighting its biggest war since the Turkish War of Independence, and that “terror organisations were just pawns in this asymmetrical war.”

On Saturday, December 24, headlines were even more detached from news regarding the execution of two Turkish soldiers. Star, Vatan and Akşam repeated Erdoğan’s aim to “burry terror”, including IS, PKK and FETÖ, the government’s acronym for Fethullah Gülen’s network of supporters. While other newspapers gave privilege to news regarding Russian-Turkish relations and the coup of July 15, little reference was given to the IS video.

Hürriyet and Posta were the only mainstream newspapers that challenged the reliability of the video, while Cumhuriyet emphasized the inability of the government to provide answers; yet all three gave little space for this news on their front pages. By contrast, opposition daily BirGün took the news to headlines, with a sub-heading including opposition party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s criticism about Turkey’s intervention in Syria.

The need to justify war

It is important to note at this point that, unlike previous times when Turkey came face-to-face with such acts of brutality, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television has not publicised its publication ban on the incident.

In light of the ban, the least that could be expected of the media was to voice the demand of the public, as well as the families of the deceased, for the government to provide answers to the following questions: Firstly, is the video and the identity of the subjects reliable; secondly, why were those soldiers left in the hands of IS for such a long time; and finally, do the government and the military have plans for avoiding such brutal casualties as the intervention continues?

Meanwhile, media outlets that have produced news about the video are under threat of censorship. One such example is the online newspaper Diken, which has continuously published articles on the subject. One recent article focused on the words of Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Numan Kurtulmuş, who thanked the national media for their “understanding of the sensitive issue” and told social media authorities to “watch their step.”

Tunca Öğreten, who was the editor of Diken until recently, was taken into custody on Sunday, December 25, for alleged “membership of a terrorist organisation.” Even though Turkey has become infamous for stories of journalists getting arrested, the timing of Öğreten’s arrest is alarming.

The Turkish government, faced with growing public anger at its decision to directly intervene in the Syrian civil war, seems to have found itself in a position where it needs to justify the war.

Turkey’s military attacks on IS officially started in July 2015, after the IS attack on the Kilis border post. Now, with 16 soldiers killed, and two soldiers allegedly burned to death in al-Bab, even the rallying discourse of martyrdom is seemingly cracking under the pressure, explaining the shift in strategy over this tragedy: secrecy rather than glory.

As the attempted protest in Galatasaray Square and previous demonstrations such as the ones condemning the October 10 Ankara bombing show, part of the Turkish public is now taking an extremely critical stance against Turkey’s military involvement in Syria.

It appears that the concept of ‘martyrdom’ in Turkey is shifting in a way that renders the title fluid: a term that is broadened and limited according to government agenda. Consequently, the issue of which ‘martyr’ is newsworthy and which is not is also subject to frequent change.

The attempt to conceal any kind of news about IS’ video jogs our memories of Britain’s quest to justify the war in Iraq. Yet the efforts of President Erdoğan and his government to portray Turkey’s intervention in Syria as a “war of liberation against terrorist organisations” will most likely continue in the face of increasing public and political criticism.

Ayşe Su Doğru

Ayşe Su Doğru, “Access denied: Turkey’s silence on ISIS burning of two soldiers”, Independent Turkey, 28 December 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey).

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