This Mysterious Twitter User Predicts Turkish Government Crackdowns

This Mysterious Twitter User Predicts Turkish Government Crackdowns

On Saturday night, journalists at Turkey’s highest-circulation newspaper, Zaman, gathered at their offices and waited to be arrested. Some even filed stories on their surreal predicament shortly before police arrived. They hadn’t been tipped off by a source inside the government. Instead, they learned about what was coming from the Twitter account of a mysterious character who has become something of a Turkish “Deep Throat.”

Since he began tweeting about a year ago, a Twitter user who goes by the name of “Fuat Avni” has proved to have startlingly accurate knowledge of events before they happen. In a series of tweets Thursday, he announced an imminent crackdown on opposition media affiliated with the U.S.-based Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, naming specific publications that would be targeted. Additional tweets on Saturday revealed that the “operation” would take place on Sunday or Monday and listed names of journalists to be arrested, along with the prosecutor involved.

Fuat Avni — who has 670,000 followers on his Turkish-language account and nearly 23,000 on a related English-language account — is believed by some observers to be an insider in the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has captivated the country with his mostly reliable predictions of events, including two rounds of mass arrests of police officers involved in an anti-government wiretapping probe. In August, he even correctly forecast a day in advance that his own Twitter account would be shut down, and provided his followers with an alternate account to follow. Fuat Avni also offers oblique commentary on Erdogan and his inner circle, referring to the Turkish leader as “the Tyrant.” In recent years, Erdogan has grown increasingly authoritarian as he has consolidated control over Turkey’s judiciary, military, and press.

When the raids finally took place on Sunday morning, Turkish police detained at least two dozen people, most of them journalists, charging them with belonging to an illegal organization aimed at spreading propaganda and taking over the government. Those arrested included Ekrem Dumanli, Zaman’s editor in chief; columnists at Zaman and Bugun, another newspaper; and staff at the broadcasting group Samanyolu, ranging from president Hidayet Karaca on down to soap-opera screenwriters.

The arrest of Dumanli was broadcast live on television, amid vehement protests from fellow employees and supporters.

Arrests of media workers are, unfortunately, nothing new for Turkey. In 2012 and 2013, the country made headlines as the world’s top jailer of journalists (ahead of Iran and China). In 2014, Freedom House ranked the country 134th out of the 197 countries in its annual press freedom rankings. Recent years have seen an increasingly hostile climate for freedom of speech, marked by intimidation of journalists by government officials, sweeping government influence over media outlets, and clampdowns on social media and the Internet.

“Basically, 60 percent of the press is under government control. Zaman and a couple of other newspapers are the only ones left who are opposed to the government. So they’re basically trying to take them down so there will be no opposition,” said Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

Indeed, neither the targets nor the timing of Sunday’s wave of arrests — which have been roundly condemned by Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among others — is particularly surprising.

The influential Gulen movement follows the teachings of a 73-year-old cleric who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Fethullah Gulen’s supporters in Turkey, who are believed to be widespread among the ranks of the judiciary and police, were formerly allied with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), and for a number of years newspapers like Zaman served as little more than AKP mouthpieces.

Through their bureaucratic and media strength, the Gulenists previously backed a number of high-profile crackdowns on journalists and opposition figures, such as the multiyear investigation of Ergenekon, an alleged conspiracy by military officers, media professionals, and secular intellectuals to overthrow the AKP government. Some journalists, including prominent investigative reporters Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, spent more than a year in pre-trial detention on dubious charges connected with the inquiry.

But since the AKP and the Gulenists parted ways in late 2013 in what amounted to a power struggle, Gulen-affiliated media have also come under fire. In a speech Friday, Erdogan vowed to hunt down what he has repeatedly called a “parallel state” within the ranks of the bureaucracy and civil society — a reference to Gulenists, whom he believes are loyal first and foremost to their exiled leader. “We have gone into their lairs, and we will go into them again…. [We] will bring down this network,” Erdogan said.

The timing of Sunday’s arrests was no coincidence, coming just three days before the first anniversary of the “December 17 scandal,” when police and prosecutors went after top figures in then-Prime Minister Erdogan’s government on allegations of corruption and money laundering. The AKP government viewed the operation as a Gulenist plot and responded by restructuring the judiciary and police apparatus over the following months so that charges against nearly 100 suspects were dropped. Hundreds of police and judicial staff were removed from their posts — moves that Fuat Avni frequently foretold in his tweets.

Sunday’s crackdown is effectively the latest salvo in the ongoing battle between the AKP government and the Gulen movement — but this time with the freedom of a number of journalists hanging in the balance.

“I really believe that this is a point of no return for the government … an authoritarian bent that will be very difficult to reverse,” said Barkey. “This is going to be a system that is completely controlled by [Erdogan], and which will brook absolutely no opposition.”

For his part, Fuat Avni appears more sanguine that the AKP government will eventually pay for its misdeeds.

“Neither sulk, be pessimistic nor be hopeless,” he tweeted Sunday from his English-language account. “These are noices [sic] out of a collapsing fake dynasty.”

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images