[OPINION] Anadolu news agency: Erdoğan’s Islamist propaganda tool

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Abdullah Bozkurt

Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu Ajansı (Anatolia Agency or AA) has become the main instrument of propaganda in the hands of the country’s Islamist rulers, who turned the one-time bipartisan news service into a Soviet-style trolling machine that manufactures lies, half-truths, false realities and conspiracies to discredit, undermine and demoralize critics and opponents of the Turkish president.

There has been a systematic, deliberate and aggressive effort to link critics and the opposition to terrorism, coup mongering, treachery and conspiring with foreign governments. Reports galore based on unfounded accusations, smears, insults and even threats to discredit President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s opponents have been seen in dispatches filed by Anadolu in recent years.

The news service, generously funded by taxpayer money, is managed by a thug named Şenol Kazancı, who has no real qualifications in journalism other than being a classmate of Erdoğan’s son Bilal in high school, when both attended a religious school, İHL, in Istanbul’s Kartal district. He served as chief aide to Erdoğan in the Office of the Prime Minister, mainly dealing with permits and licensing that brought big bucks in kickbacks to his master. When Erdoğan was elected president, Kazancı moved to the presidential palace along with him. He was boasting about having a higher profile than Cabinet members because of his command over leasing and selling state-owned properties, whose control was consolidated in Erdoğan’s office. Turkish ministers were practically begging this man to secure lucrative deals or incentives such as mining licenses for state-owned lands for investors and businesspeople.

Erdoğan appointed him to lead Anadolu in December 2014 so that the news service could be completely overhauled to become a propaganda machine to support Erdoğan’s drive to turn Turkey away from a parliamentary democracy rooted in the rule of law, fundamental rights, secularism and separation of powers. Anadolu regularly and extensively covers speeches by Erdoğan and events held by his government and associates while limiting coverage for the opposition. Its editorial line is designed to divide and dismantle the opposition by zooming in on negative aspects while providing highly favorable coverage for the governing Islamist elite.

Kazancı’s clandestine business with his boss Erdogan, although known by insiders in the Turkish capital for some time, spilled over into public view in late 2013. His involvement with the associates of Yasin al-Qadi, a shadowy Saudi businessman who was listed at the time as an al-Qaeda financier on both the UN and US terror lists, was exposed during major corruption investigations that were made public on Dec. 25, 2013. Despite UN sanctions that barred al-Qadi from making foreign trips or moving funds, Erdoğan helped him enter Turkey illegally and facilitated his business schemes to funnel money. In this dragnet Kazancı was conspiring with Erdoğan’s son Bilal in turning over a valuable piece of real estate owned by the government in an elite Istanbul neighborhood to a front company set up by al-Qadi and his associates.

Intercepted wiretap communications laid bare this entire plot. When the probe was exposed, making headlines, Kazancı was in a panic, fearing that he’d be imprisoned for not only aiding and abetting corruption but also for helping al-Qadi evade sanctions. In one wiretap Kazancı was heard asking for a large paper shredder in a hurry from Kasım Bostan, head of the finance department in the Prime Ministry in 2013, in what seemed to be a part of frantic efforts to a remove the paper trail for illegal business schemes he and his boss had been involved in. He also asked for a safe in which to stash money, just like Erdoğan was intercepted ordering his son Bilal to hide millions of dollars outside his residence in Istanbul in the wake of arrests during the graft investigations. Despite incriminating evidence Kazancı, al-Qadi, Bilal and other suspects in the case were saved by Erdoğan, who hushed up the probe and orchestrated the immediate removal of the chief investigators, judges and prosecutors who had worked on the case for months.

Coming from a deeply religious background and having worked as a politician in the youth branch of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Kazancı also brought Islamist ideology and political activism to the agency. Anadolu’s appeal to the religious and nationalistic inclinations of the Turkish people gained pace with jihadists being interviewed by the agency and Islamist academics getting a platform from which to bash the West in long opinion pieces.

Anadolu has started working as if it were a public relations agency for all sorts of Islamist groups in the world, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to armed jihadist groups in Syria.

For example, many reports filed from Syria, sometimes by reporters embedded with armed groups including Nusra Front affiliates, were quite favorable to jihadist factions. On Aug. 6, 2016 Anadolu published video footage from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, an al-Qaeda group, when militants carried out a suicide vehicle bomb attack in Aleppo. The video was shot by an embedded reporter working for Anadolu. When Jaish al-Fatah took over Idlib on March 28, 2015, Anadolu ran a feature story claiming that life had returned to normal in the city.

On Oct. 5, 2014, Anadolu published a positively spun story on jihadists when it reported on festivities in Raqqah, which is controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It shared photos on Twitter of children playing and enjoying candy. Following the reaction it sparked, Anadolu had to delete the messages. On June 25, 2014, when ISIL took over Mosul, the agency sent two reporters to the city to cover how life was under ISIL control. The report was quite positive as it quoted a resident saying how life was wonderful under ISIL. Another one quoted by the agency said ISIL did not really bother anybody and did not even interfere with minority Christian groups.

While promoting jihadists, Anadolu covered the US-led anti-ISIL coalition campaign as well as Russian military assaults on jihadists in a more critical tone. In fact, on July 19, 2017, the agency even exposed 10 US outposts in the provinces of Aleppo, Hasakah and Raqqa that were set up to support Kurds and others taking on ISIL. Many of these outposts were not previously known. It was apparent that the Erdogan government leaked the intelligence, although Anadolu claimed it was a result of fieldwork. The story provided detailed information, with a map showing troop numbers, equipment and US operational procedures at the outposts. The Pentagon was furious over the report, expressing its concern to the Turkish government over sharing sensitive tactical information that could endanger US-led coalition and partner forces.

To make room for these jihadist mindset people in the agency, hundreds of Anadolu employees, professional reporters who had been working at the news agency for years, were dismissed and many were arrested on trumped-up charges of terrorism and coup plotting. Islamist activists were hired as editors and reporters, and some were dispatched to staff overseas bureaus. Many non-Turkish Islamists were hired as reporters on an assignment basis in the Middle East, Africa and Asia to expand the reach of Anadolu in Muslim majority countries.

Turkey’s notorious intelligence agency MIT reportedly sent some spies undercover posing as reporters for Anadolu to gain access to people who are in positions of power and influence. Some of the agency’s wire dispatches and footage that targeted Erdoğan’s critics abroad, especially critical journalists, as part of the harassment and intimidation campaign suggest Turkey’s spy agency MIT and news agency Anadolu work jointly and cooperate closely. There were cases of stalking, chasing and harassing prominent journalists in the US by reporters who work for Anadolu.

Furthermore, Anadolu played a crucial role in manipulating election results, starting with the March 2014 local elections, when the Erdoğan government was rattled by major corruption scandals that led to the resignation of four Cabinet ministers. Anadolu, which had never reported election results from polling stations on election night before the official results were announced, suddenly decided to venture into the business of reporting on election results. It clearly manipulated the elections by reporting favorable results for Erdoğan’s party, especially in hotly contested districts, to suppress voter turnout and force election monitors from opposition parties to throw in the towel while the count was still under way. The manipulation was well documented by the opposition parties, which compared Anadolu’s reporting to that of Cihan, another news agency that had been accurately reporting early polling data for the last 13 years. No wonder Cihan was seized by the government in March 2016 to get rid of competition.

Another manipulation was done during the failed coup of July 15, 2016. The agency started filing reports that were complete fabrications from suspect testimony. For example, Anadolu reported that former Turkish Air Forces commander and member of the Supreme Military Council Akın Öztürk, a key suspect in a trial concerning the coup attempt in Turkey last year, admitted to his role in the coup. Yet, when the original testimony appeared in the HaberTurk daily, Öztürk in fact said the complete opposite, denying being a putschist. After the exposure of the efforts at manipulation by Anadolu, the government rushed to secure a gag order from a court in Izmir that prohibited publishing statements from defendants and other information from the coup investigation so that only the government narrative could be presented without any challenging or opposing views.

On March 28, 2017 while delivering a speech at the Ensar Foundation, a pro-government religious entity, Kazancı was bragging about how he personally informed media outlets on the night of the failed coup. His remarks were covered in the initial report by the agency but were later removed without informing subscribers that this part was deleted from the original story. Kazancı’s role in the failed coup, which the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) said was orchestrated by Erdogan along with intelligence and military chiefs, remains a mystery. Although the investigation revealed that that Erdogan issued the first statement to local reporters, that message was not published including by Anadolu for reasons that are not entirely clear. Why was it that Anadolu, which has the largest audience and penetration in Turkey, did not dispatch that report early on? If it did, it could have helped in suppressing the limited military mobilization. But I guess it was all part of Erdogan’s plot to make us believe that the fake coup was actually happening.

Unfortunately, there is no exact figure as to how much money is funneled to Anadolu from state coffers because of the agency’s obscure company structure and shareholders. According to the Directorate General of Press and Information (BYEGM), a government body that provides the majority of funding to Anadolu from the central budget, between the years 2010 and 2015 Anadolu had received TL 583 million. With additional funding, that total came to TL 743 million. That corresponds to roughly $318 million at 2015 exchange rates. The government allocated TL 282 million for the BYEGM in the 2016 budget and TL 297 million in 2017. Most of that money would go to Anadolu as well.

The Court of Accounts, the state’s accounting office that reviews government expenditures, attempted to audit the agency’s finances in 2012 as most of its money was coming from taxpayers. Yet it was denied. When the Court of Accounts audited the Treasury, which holds a sizable number of shares in Anadolu, it drafted a report that Anadolu must be audited as well. The auditors also said Anadolu’s finances must be reviewed because of the state funding coming from the BYEGM, another government agency. Yet both efforts were thwarted by Erdoğan when the government buried the reports and killed the recommendations.

The Court of Accounts, which also operates as an independent court, was about to file embezzlement charges against the BYEGM auditing officer over a funds transfer to Anadolu in the amount of TL 100 million. However, that move was prevented by the government’s interference in the judicial investigation. The auditing report, revealed in 2015, showed that Anadolu billed the BYEGM 2,300 times more than what other news agencies charged for each news story they sold to the BYEGM. For example, Anadolu was paid TL 306.12 for each news report, while the Cihan news agency was paid only TL 0.13, IHA news service TL0.26 and ANKA TL 1.57. It was clear that the state news agency was billing exorbitant fees to the government, disrupting competition and destroying the level playing field among news service providers. Despite the huge amount of taxpayer money diverted to the agency under dubious schemes, Anadolu has continued operating without any accountability.

Against the background of this transformation and profile of its managers, it is clear that this news service that feeds hundreds of media outlets at home and abroad has been transformed into a malicious tool in the hands of Turkey’s Islamist rulers not only to attack, smear and discredit domestic critics and opponents of Erdoğan’s autocratic regime but to also undermine the traditional alliance and partnership structures Turkey has built over the decades. Anadolu had long been credited as the memory bank of Turkey that served as a credible, trustworthy and reliable news agency. That is long gone. As Erdoğan tries to build an Islamist state in his own image with neo-Ottomanist ambitions, he is also tampering with the memory of the country to create a new narrative of religious and nationalistic discourse, and Anadolu is facilitating that.

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