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In Khashoggi Disappearance, Turkey’s Slow Drip of Leaks Puts Pressure on Saudis

ISTANBUL — Since the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared over two weeks ago, details from the police investigation, including gory descriptions of audio recordings that reveal he was killed in Tarantino-like fashion, have been leaked, drip by drip, to keep the world suspended as the mystery unfolds.

The calculated media strategy has proved remarkably effective for the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ensuring that the case remains front-page news around the world.

But it has also served a deeper agenda — to push the United States to pressure Saudi Arabia — while shielding the government behind the news media to avoid an open and potentially damaging diplomatic rupture with the Saudis.

From the start, reports of the existence of the audio recordings were brandished almost as a threat by Turkish officials and pro-government news outlets, evidently to maintain pressure on Saudi Arabia, but also on the Trump administration, to resolve the issue to Turkey’s taste.

Political analysts noted that Mr. Erdogan seemed to increase the pressure by releasing descriptions of audio recordings after it appeared that President Trump would offer cover to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, known as M.B.S., by promoting the Saudi line that the death had been the work of “rogue killers.”

“Erdogan had hoped that Trump and the Saudis would take the exit path of throwing someone senior under the bus,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But when Trump starting trending toward defending M.B.S., Erdogan released more details to build pressure on them.”

Even on Friday, still more details of the investigation emerged, as the police extended their search to three locations in and around Istanbul where, according to a Turkish official, vehicles from the Saudi Consulate were seen driving in the hours after Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. The official spoke on the condition that he not be named because of diplomatic proprieties.

Yet no newspaper has actually obtained the audio or even listened to it, allowing the government not only to safeguard their providence but also to maintain control over how much it reveals — and when.

The abiding irony of Mr. Khashoggi’s case is that, while pushing out details of the case to chosen outlets, Mr. Erdogan’s government has itself been openly hostile to independent journalists. So has Mr. Trump, if not nearly to the same degree.

After 15 years in power, Mr. Erdogan’s government exerts enormous control over Turkey’s news media through purchases of major television and newspaper outlets by companies close to the government. Since a failed coup in 2016, scores of journalists have been imprisoned, more than 100 news outlets have been closed, and independent voices have been suppressed.

In the case of Mr. Khashoggi, however, that same news media has proved useful as the government seeks to increase its leverage for a deal that could include money from the oil-rich Saudi kingdom to bail out Turkey’s beleaguered economy.

The success of the campaign of leaks, and the gripping controversy around the case, may now be expanding the government’s ambitions, emboldening it to undermine Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, who is seen as unfriendly to Turkey’s interests.

“Initially, it seemed Turkey was seeking a bargain with or financial support from Saudi Arabia,” said Amanda Sloat, a former State Department official now at the Brookings Institution. “But it increasingly appears that Turkey is seeking to inflict maximum damage on M.B.S.”

It is not clear what Mr. Erdogan is demanding, but the policy of official leaks has been clearly to prevent a complete whitewash of the disappearance. Pro-government columnists have called for the Saudi crown prince to go.

Hilal Kaplan, one of the most outspoken columnists, known to be close to the president and strongly anti-American, even suggested in her column Friday that the United States could be blamed as an accessory in Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.

“If the U.S. administration continues this defensive line of language in favor of M.B.S. and reiterates mostly what they want to hear, one would fairly wonder if Trump and his Middle East peace envoy Jared Kushner also had prior knowledge of this atrocity to come and did nothing.”

If the government’s motivations remain obscure, its media strategy has been equally — and unusually — discreet for a government not shy of outright confrontation. It has also been effective.

In the early days, the leaks were pushed especially toward American news media — including The New York Times and The Washington Post — in order to engage American interest and support for Turkey’s position, a Turkish official involved in the campaign said.

Mr. Khashoggi’s fiancée was encouraged to write opinion pieces in American newspapers, prompting Turkish newspapers to complain that the Turkish public also wanted to hear from her.

The staunchly pro-government newspaper Sabah was one of the first Turkish news outlets to publish an exclusive after Abdurrahman Simsek, who heads the investigative unit, said he complained directly to government officials that Turkish newspapers were not getting information on the case.

“We got angry at them — ‘Why are you giving it to the foreign press while we are here?’ ” he recalled complaining.

Once the West was engaged in the case, and foreign news organizations poured into Istanbul and set up cameras outside the Saudi Consulate, the Turkish government reverted to its more standard way of operating, feeding information to the Turkish newspapers, mostly through trusted reporters known for their links to security officials, such as Mr. Simsek and his team.

Turkey’s handling of the affair has been the exact opposite of Mr. Erdogan’s usual tactics on the international scene. When he fell out with Germany last year, for instance, he publicly excoriated Chancellor Angela Merkel and her officials, even comparing them to Nazis.

But from the start of the Khashoggi affair, Turkish officials said, they were cautious to avoid any direct confrontation with Saudi Arabia because of Turkey’s fragile economic and political situation.

“That would have led to a crisis of major proportions,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The story would no longer have been about Jamal, but about the Turkish-Saudi spat, and Turkey would no longer be believed.”

Politically, Mr. Erdogan is in a vulnerable position, Ms. Aydintasbas said. The economy is faltering with a falling lira and a looming banking crisis. Yet Turkey has few friends positioned to help it.

Relations with most European Union members are badly damaged, and Turkey has been embroiled in an ugly diplomatic wrangle with the United States. In the Middle East, Mr. Erdogan has ended up on the opposing side from the powerful triumvirate of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on many issues.

Mr. Erdogan and his close circle of advisers even see Saudi Arabia’s hand in a campaign to undermine his government by supporting Kurdish forces in Syria and in supporting the failed coup, a pro-government columnist wrote last week.

Mr. Erdogan’s political isolation was evident at the United Nations General Assembly last month, where he had few meetings of significance with other leaders. “He does not want to be out there in the cold,” Ms. Aydintasbas said.

Two Turkish officials expressed outrage at the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, who was known personally to members of the government, in such a brutal and blatant manner inside the Saudi Consulate, but they said Turkey could not go head-to-head with Saudi Arabia and would first seek United States support to bring pressure on Riyadh.

Although Turkish officials knew within hours of the disappearance that Mr. Khashoggi had probably been killed, senior officials did not say anything publicly for days. Neither did Mr. Erdogan and his senior spokesmen.

The lack of official statements was to avoid an open diplomatic confrontation, the Sabah reporter, Mr. Simsek, said.

“What I am told by the people doing the investigation is that ‘I don’t want to say anything because if I do, it might have diplomatic repercussions,’ ” he said.

Nevertheless, according to one report, Mr. Erdogan was incensed by an interview in which the Saudi crown prince told the Bloomberg News agency that he had no knowledge of Mr. Khashoggi’s whereabouts, and even claimed to be looking for him.

The leaks started soon after, even if the recordings are being closely guarded by Turkish officials, not least because intelligence services do not want to reveal whether they had placed listening devices inside the consulate, or received them from an informant whose position would be endangered.

Mr. Simsek, who has worked the intelligence beat for nearly 20 years, said police and security officials preferred to reach their own conclusions in an investigation before they start talking to the news media.

Independent media analysts cast it differently.

“In Turkey, 90 up to 95 percent of the media is directly or indirectly connected to the government,” said Ragip Duran, a media columnist for the ArtiGercek news site. “In general, their approach is to protect the government rather than tell the public what happened. It is the same in the Khashoggi case.”

Source: NYT > World

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