Transitions

Turks, Lies, and Videotape

Today’s Turkey is a place where fictitious news reports live on long after they’ve been debunked.

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At one of his public events earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a moment to reflect on an incident that supposedly occurred during anti-government protests two years ago. “A mother was harassed in Kabatas during the Gezi incidents even though she was with her child,” he said. “Nobody condemned those who harassed that woman, nobody chased them.” He made a point of noting that she was clad in a headscarf — a symbol of Muslim piety often celebrated by Erdogan and like-minded members of his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP).

That wasn’t the first time that Erdogan has played the headscarf card. As part of his response to the famous Gezi Park protests in the spring and summer of 2013, Erdogan launched a series of mass political rallies to demonstrate his continued power and popularity. In each rally he repeated the same line: “They dragged my covered sister on the streets near my office and attacked her and her child.”

The odd thing about Erdogan’s account is that the incident he was describing never happened — something that has been thoroughly proven by independent reporting, evidence from the scene, and testimony from a source close to the person who first publicized the case in question. Yet in today’s Turkey, where the government daily demonstrates its eagerness to dominate public discourse, it comes as no surprise that a non-event can come to be regarded as a self-evident truth.

During the protests, a woman wearing a headscarf claimed that she and her baby had been attacked by dozens of protesters (mostly half-naked men with leather gloves) who insulted her Islamic attire, kicked her baby, and urinated on her. In an exclusive interview with pro-government journalist Elif Cakir, 25-year-old Zehra Develioglu recalled how her attackers beat her, ripped off her scarf, and tore her baby carriage from her hands — all in the middle of Istanbul’s middle-class Kabatas district. The woman in question is the daughter-in-law of a mayor from the ruling AKP, a man described by then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “one of [my] very close and important friends.” Erdogan repeated Develioglu’s account in his rallies many times, using it to demonize the Gezi protesters to his followers. (The photo above shows protestors confronting security forces in Istanbul in July 2013.)

While some demonstrators condemned the attackers and tried to place distance between them and the Gezi movement, many on social media voiced disbelief. It was hard to imagine a mob assaulting a young woman and her baby in broad daylight in one of Istanbul’s busiest neighborhoods without anyone else noticing. The government-friendly media, as well as some liberal journalists and AKP deputies, claimed that video of the assault existed but that it was being withheld for the sake of social calm. Some journalists even claimed to have seen the video — and then had to apologize when, some months after the fact, a private TV network released security camera footage showing that no such attack had taken place.

A recent police report revealed that a total of 42 hours and 40 minutes of video footage was examined as part of the effort to confirm the women’s allegations. During the investigation, investigators scrutinized 151 video cameras aimed at the scene of the incident, covering the hours before and after the time of the alleged incident. The police met with dozens of shop owners and citizens who were in the area at the time. And yet — as the final police report from the investigation confirmed — no one was able support Develioglu’s claims. This revelation caused an outcry since her version of the story had been so widely reported as true. After the security footage disproving the incident was released, many demanded answers, alleging an orchestrated campaign to demonize the Gezi movement. Some started to refer to the Zehra Develioglu incident sarcastically as “fifty shades of gray at Kabatas.”

Disinformation about Gezi was, indeed, commonplace. The pro-government media claimed that protesters drank beer in a mosque where they had taken refuge from police. The mosque’s imam denied that the incident ever happened; he soon ended up exiled to a remote village in the outskirts of Istanbul. There were also lurid claims that protesters had group sex in the mosque; that prostitution and group sex were common at Gezi Park; that the protests had been planned by the Serbian civil society organization Otpor; and so on. All of it, apparently, was fabricated by pro-government media and cited by AKP members.

So why on earth I am writing about the Kabatas incident almost two years later? Because — as Erdogan’s recent allusion to it demonstrates — the story simply refuses to die.

The video footage and witness testimony aren’t the only evidence that discredits Develioglu’s account. Fidel Okan, an ex-lawyer for the journalist who interviewed the alleged victim, recently disclosed that the story was completely made up. Okan’s action surprised me — not because I ever believed Elif Cakir’s report, but rather because Okan was apparently willing to violate his confidentiality obligations to his client. According to the lawyer, Develioglu was frightened by protestors who passed by her chanting slogans. She also happened to be mad at her husband, who was late to pick her up. So she embellished her story, which, because of its political usefulness, quickly took on a life of its own. “Cakir tried to convince society of a lie,” Okan wrote. “She will be remembered as the Kabatas liar until the end of her life. Before this happens, she could do something simple: apologize.”

Let’s put aside for the moment Okan’s decision to publicize private discussions with his former client. He does have one thing right: the public deserves an apology from every single person who used this incident to polarize society. Yet instead of acknowledging their errors, 14 government-friendly columnists from five different papers have published stories with essentially the same content, using an identical headline: “Your language is rude and your hearts made of stone.” These articles defend the government and Elif Cakir, the columnist who first interviewed the alleged victim. Erdogan, for his part, attributes attempts to discredit Develioglu’s story to the bad faith of opposition media. Cakir, for her part, recently repeated her claims on a TV broadcast.

Despite the lack of substantive evidence, pro-government media are only too happy to keep plugging the story. Earlier this week, a national daily published a front-page story about the Kabatas incident that included an illustration of a shadowy crowd of men cornering a woman and her child. The paper, which claimed that it had learned that a security company had erased camera footage of the assault, wrote that the entire incident lasted for just 52 seconds. The paper failed to explain how all of the lurid actions described by Develioglu — beating, urinating, sexual assault — could have happened in such a short time; nor did it explain why it felt justified in resorting to a spooky Photoshopped image to illustrate its account. Thinking of Turkey these days, I often remember Joseph Goebbels and his famous quote: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

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