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[OPINION] Erdoğan is the commander-in-chief of the trolls, not the army

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Since Turkey’s southern provinces were hit by 7.8 and 7.6-magnitude earthquakes on Feb. 6 and the region continues to be rocked by strong tremors, millions of earthquake victims have expressed outrage at what they say is the Turkish government’s inaction, especially during the first three days of the disaster.

Millions of Turks in the region are frustrated by the lack of access to medical care as well as necessities such as toilets, blankets and food. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the commander-in-chief of the strong Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), the second-largest army in NATO. However, he has not ordered the TSK to help the earthquake victims. On the other hand, the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) army of internet trolls was mobilized in the first hours after the earthquakes to turn the disaster in Erdoğan’s favor at a critical time, as Turkey is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in June.

Commander-in-Chief Erdoğan has sent the Turkish army into conflict zones such as northern Iraq, Syria, Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region and Libya and has established Turkish military bases in Qatar and Somalia. He supplied weapons to Ukraine and threatened Greece with a military takeover. But he has refused to send the Turkish army to help earthquake victims. The Turkish army has a strong search and rescue unit that successfully helped victims of the 1999 earthquakes and many other disasters.

Turkish columnists Memduh Bayraktaroğlu and Said Sefa claimed that Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Culture and Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy agreed on an initial action plan within an hour of the first earthquake that struck Kahramanmaraş at 4:17 a.m. local time. According to these journalists, Akar called senior Turkish army officers to send military forces to the disaster area. Soylu instructed the Gendarmerie General Command to send personnel to rescue earthquake victims. However, they only managed to reach Erdoğan after three hours had passed. When they informed the president about the rescue plan, he insulted them and stopped the preliminary emergency measures taken by the three ministers and transferred all responsibility to the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD), which is headed by people from Erdoğan’s close circle. Earthquake victims took to social media to call for help, while thousands expressed anger that they had not seen AFAD staff or other search and rescue teams in their areas. Many people in Kahramanmaraş, Hatay and Adıyaman related how they rescued their loved ones either by themselves or with the help of the municipality.

Turkey’s ruling party formed a 6,000-strong army of internet trolls after the Gezi Park protests, a wave of demonstrations by liberals, leftists and other government critics mobilized via Facebook and Twitter in May 2013. Since then, the AKP government has poured millions of dollars into keeping these trolls responsible for turning public opinion in favor of Erdoğan’s AKP. The trolls have been given more resources and have become supporters of Erdoğan’s regime since the president transformed Turkey’s parliamentary system into an executive presidency in 2018. Erdoğan no longer tolerates criticism since establishing one-man rule. Moreover, he acts as king of the trolls, threatening anyone who questions the government’s failure to respond adequately to the earthquake in the first days of the disaster while tens of thousands of people were trapped under the rubble waiting to be rescued. Many victims today live with the trauma of seeing their family members alive and trapped, hearing their voices and cries for help while AFAD failed to arrive, leaving them to die under the rubble. Others spoke to local media about how victims were left to the mercy of volunteers without professional training who were forced to amputate people’s hands and legs to free them from the rubble. Millions of victims are still begging for tents and heaters from the Erdoğan government, which has failed to reach people in many remote areas in the disaster zone. However, the AKP government has managed to silence all critics, thanks to the internet trolls and the pro-government media.

Erdoğan’s one-man rule paralyzed and delayed the rescue operation. Not only did AFAD arrive too late to help people, the AKP government also prevented local aid organizations and opposition parties from bringing help to the victims. The Erdoğan government imposed a state of emergency in the disaster area and began to take control of all rescue and relief efforts. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as well as CHP mayors and MPs, along with members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) accused the AKP of preventing them from helping the victims. AKP supporters and Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the AKP-allied Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), also openly threatened singer Haluk Levent, who founded the Anatolian People’s and Peace Platform Foundation (AHBAP), a charity that has raised several million dollars for the victims. Foreign rescue teams, such as the Greek and Israeli teams, had to wait for hours at airports to receive permission from the AKP to conduct search and rescue operations. Austrian, German and Israeli rescue teams suspended search operations due to security concerns, and Spanish and Slovak search and rescue teams left Turkey after the government allowed the use of construction equipment to remove debris in earthquake-affected areas, saying the move meant risking the lives of many people.

The AKP’s failure to respond adequately and promptly to the disaster caused the death of tens of thousands of people. Erdoğan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun announced a “disinformation reporting service” the day after the earthquakes to silence anyone who wanted to criticize the government’s response. Greek, Israeli, German, Russian, American and many other heads of state issued messages of condolence. Some of them described the suffering of the Turkish people, showed empathy and shared in the grief of the Turks, but President Erdoğan himself insulted the earthquake victims in the harshest of terms, calling them “dishonorable” and ‘immoral.” The survivors had lost family members and were left on the streets in freezing temperatures, simply wondering why they had not received help from the Turkish Red Crescent.

Erdoğan’s government restricted access to Twitter in the first days of the disaster to silence people’s anger at government inaction. Turkey’s Supreme Radio and Television Council ( RTÜK) announced yesterday that TV stations, in particular Fox TV, HaberTürk, Halk TV and Tele-1, would be fined for reporting on government failures in the disaster zone and corruption in the construction sector.

Erdoğan’s trolls on social media target all critics, while the pro-AKP mainstream media praises the AKP’s post-earthquake response. The death toll and the scale of destruction are too great for the AKP to cover up and exploit this time before the upcoming elections. Erdoğan promises to make Turkey one of the top 10 economies in the world but has spent $37 billion from an earthquake tax on the mega construction projects of his corrupt inner circle. In the name of appearing to be a world leader, Erdoğan sent the Turkish army to many high-risk conflict areas but failed to send the army to the earthquake region. Erdoğan has proven that he is the commander-in-chief of the trolls and that the empire he has built by manipulating the media and spreading propaganda will now be destroyed by the earthquake.

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