People flock to social media for Zarrab’s trial as Turkish media opts auto censorship

Especially exiled journalists who live in the US, including Adem Yavuz Arslan, who was former Ankara Bureau Chief of now-closed Bugün daily, have shared information about Zarrab's trial and they made Periscope broadcasting on Twitter.

Allegations of wrongdoing by Turkey’s political and financial leaders have transfixed the country this week, but with some newspapers focusing instead on courtroom conspiracies and clothes, many Turks have been left hungry for news, reported Reuters news agency on Friday.

According to a report by independent online news portal Ahval on Friday, even Turkey’s top-selling independent and opposition newspapers initially omitted any mention of Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab’s testimony about then-Prime Minister, Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s involvement in a scheme to bypass Iranian sanctions.

The detailed account of the case on the website of Hürriyet – Turkey’s biggest-selling newspaper at first skipped over Zarrab’s allegation that Erdoğan and Ali Babacan, then-Deputy Prime Minister responsible for treasury, had given the order for the sanctions scheme to be expanded to include two more state banks. However, according to the report, this morning the missing allegation was added back in, and the news was also included in the print edition.

The more stridently anti-government newspaper Sözcü, still made no mention of Erdoğan’s alleged role on its website as of this morning, wrote the Ahval.

The reticence to include the news is likely out of a sense of self-preservation, but it also brings to mind the “Hello Fatih?” scandal of 2014, in which tapes were leaked of Erdoğan calling Fatih Saraç, the head of Ciner Media Group, to micro-manage the way in which TV channel HaberTürk delivered its news.

According to the report of Reuters, “Casual chic on the 2nd day”, read HaberTurk newspaper’s front page story after main witness Reza Zarrab told a New York court that President Erdoğan authorized a transaction in a scheme to help Iran evade US sanctions. “On the second day of the trial, Reza Zarrab was not wearing a prison uniform and was casual chic in his white shirt and dark blazer,” HaberTürk said.

 Like other publications, HaberTürk stepped nimbly around the substantive issues. Erdoğan has presided over a crackdown in areas from judiciary to media since a failed coup last year with a number of journalists jailed. He has also frequently taken court action against those he deems have insulted him.

Zarrab is cooperating with US prosecutors in the criminal trial of a Turkish bank executive accused of helping to launder money for Iran. The executive has pleaded not guilty.

The pro-government daily Star branded the case “American Theater” on its front page. “Zarrab plot trial is a political show staged by FETÖ together with judges, prosecutors and experts who are all Neo-cons and enemies of Turkey.”

“FETÖ” is a derogatory term coined by ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Islamist President Erdoğan to refer to the Gülen movement.

Reuters reported that the limited or skeptical coverage of the case has encouraged curious Turks to take to Twitter, where hashtags such as #Zarrabcase and #Zarrabkonusuyor (Zarrab is speaking) became top trending topics late on Wednesday and Thursday.

Since the trial started this week there have been hundreds of thousands of tweets, retweets and replies with Zarrab-related hashtags on Twitter.

“You can’t see it on televisions or newspapers here. They either cut feeds or don’t mention it,” told Oğuzcan Gündoğmuş, a 24-year-old PhD student, to Reuters as he sipped tea in central Ankara.

The court case has reverberated on the streets. “Spill the beans, my son!” one elderly protester urged Zarrab at a women’s demonstration in İstanbul last weekend. But most of the focus has been online. Followers of journalists tweeting from inside the courtroom surged over the past two days, more than 20-fold in some cases. One court reporter’s tweets are being simultaneously translated into Turkish and followed by 10,000 people so far.

Zarrab said in court he bribed several officials in Turkey as part of his scheme. “I am surprised the government hasn’t still banned Twitter. Me and my friends stay up at nights and follow the case there, we even make popcorn like it’s a movie night, and we call the case “Lord of the Bribes,” told Mehmet Bağlar, a 34-year-old engineer, to Reuters.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by the SCF has showed that 256 journalists and media workers are in jails as of November 21, 2017, most in pre-trial detention languishing in notorious Turkish prisons without even a conviction. Of those in Turkish prisons, 230 are arrested pending trial, only 26 journalists remain convicted and serving time in Turkish prisons. An outstanding detention warrants remain for 135 journalists who live in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down more than 180 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt.

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