An extract - A Matter of Perception by Piotr Zalweski - November 2018

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In Turkey, the end of reality began at a political rally in Diyarbakir, a city in the country’s Kurdish southeast, under blue skies and a scorching sun in June of 2015. Local folk songs washed over a boisterous crowd. Women danced, shimmering in dresses studded with green, yellow and red sequins. Near the stage, separated from a throng of thousands of people by two rows of blue police barriers, an elderly farmer chewed on sunflower seeds, awaiting the show’s main attraction, Selahattin Demirtas, the telegenic, bright eyed leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party(HDP), the flag bearer of the Kurdish political movement. His village was a good eighty miles from Diyarbakir, more or less halfway from the Syrian border, the farmer said, but this, the HDP’s last big rally ahead of the most important Turkish election in more than a decade, had been worth the drive. 

Days later, police arrested a young Islamic State (IS) militant, himself a Kurd, who confessed to planting the two bombs. His was the opening salvo. Since that summer day, dozens of other attacks, including the five deadliest bombings in Turkish history, have rocked the country. A thirty year war between the PKK and the government has stormed back into the southeast, taking thousands of lives and turning whole neighbourhoods, including parts of Diyarbakir’s historical district, to rubble and dust. A coup attempt left scores more dead in a single night, shaking the country to its core. An ensuing crackdown, having spread from one area of public life to another, has cost nearly 50,000 people their freedom, from soldiers to judges to teachers to journalists to Demirtas and other Kurdish MPs. More than 100,000 others have been sacked from government jobs under emergency rule. Reports of torture are widespread. There is no end to the repression in sight, and still less room for dissent with every wave of arrests. With Erdogan at the reins, Turkey keeps on galloping, breathless and dazed, into the unknown. 

The chain of events that began with the Diyarbakir bombing has also claimed a less conspicuous victim –the truth. Politics and the media in Turkey have always been plagued by disinformation and conspiracy theory. Since that summer day, though, rhetoric, abetted by censorship, repression, and nationalist paranoia, has suffocated reality. Bullied by Erdogan’s government and by businessmen dependent on state tenders, the media has transformed from a buffer against official spin into the tube through which it served. Wide swathes of the internet are off limits.Wikipedia he been blocked since April. In Europe and the US, people have begun to talk about post-fact politics. In Turkey, the facts themselves have ceased to exist. 

When Islamic State (I.S) released a video showing its militants burning alive two Turkish soldiers, something no mainstream outlet has been allowed to report, one pro-government journalist claimed the recording had been made in movie studios in America and the UK. 

If this sounds familiar, it should not. Because in America, the worst that a critical news item might cost you, at least for now, is an angry, misspelled Tweet from the Real Donald. In Turkey, it can cost you your freedom. At time of writing, at least 160 journalists here were behind bars. Erdogan’s government insists they are therefor activities that have nothing to do with their journalism. The formal charges against them show otherwise. Most of the evidence against Dundar and 18 of his colleagues from Cumhuriyet, an opposition newspaper, all of them accused of “terrorist propaganda”, consists of articles and interviews. The same goes for 46 other writers and journalists locked up on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” by way of statements, articles and “subliminal messages”. In each of the indictments, the phrase “perception operation” appears on at least ten occasions. The Cumhuriyet journalists face 7.5 to 43 years in prison. Many of the others face life. 

In the weeks that followed last summer’s coup, pro-government media claimed that a group of American and Turkish academics directed the bloodbath from an island on the Marmara Sea. A cabinet minister blamed the coup on the Obama administration. Erdogan, who blithely ignored the spread of jihadism in his own country, repeatedly accused the West of supporting IS forces. In January his media allies blamed America for a terrorist attack at an Istanbul nightclub. A month later, the mayor of Ankara, he of “perception management” fame, accused it of setting off a series of earthquakes. American audiences got a taste of the Turkish government’s relationship with reality, and with dissent, earlier last spring when several armed men beat up Kurdish and Armenian protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington while Erdogan was in town. 

So spectacular and gruesome was the violence, and so well did it play into the hands of a leader who had long sought to tighten his grip over the country, that many of his opponents believed the whole affair had been staged. 

The morning after the bloodshed, the sound of explosions and gunfire still fresh in our ears, a newlywed couple, he in a tuxedo, she in a wedding dress, sauntered improbably into a restaurant near our Istanbul home, flanked by a huddle of wedding guests. I went over to talk to them. “This was no coup,” the groom’s mother whispered. To her, as to the government supporters who had made light of Dundar’s shooting two months earlier, events that refused to conform to preconceived narratives had no right to take place. “This was theatre,” she said. The bride and groom said they had made two decisions that morning. The first was to go ahead with their wedding. The second was to leave Turkey at once......................

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