Over more than a decade, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have assumed almost total control of the national media and turned it into a well-oiled propaganda machine. But the Turkish government’s handling of the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has been the first truly global case study of Erdoğan’s ability to control media narratives. So far, he and his team seem to have performed spectacularly.
From the moment word got out about the disappearance of the self-exiled Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, unnamed Turkish officials gradually raised the tenor and temperature of the story with tidbits of information first delivered to sympathetic local outlets and then radiating outward to Western media. Those unnamed Turkish officials quickly said Khashoggi was probably killed inside the Saudi Consulate, information that was soon relayed around the world. The story has dominated the US news cycle ever since.
Now, with the Saudi government releasing its official version of events and the Trump administration looking likely to accept it with few questions, what happens next is largely in Turkey's hands. The Erdoğan government is continuing its slow drip of leaks, and seems determined to prove beyond doubt that the official story is false — the president says he will reveal all in a speech to parliament on Tuesday, and he will have the world’s attention. If real evidence is revealed, Trump and his Saudi allies will struggle to control the fallout.
But if the evidence in the Turkish government's possession never becomes public, it will be Khashoggi's allies who will struggle to move the story forward. Either way, what happens next is almost entirely under the Turkish strongman's control.
His regime's management of the media got us to this point. A week after the disappearance, a senior Turkish official told the New York Times that evidence shows Khashoggi was gruesomely killed and that the order was “given by the highest members of the royal family,” a reference to the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
It’s important to understand that the leaking of these details is under the full control of Erdoğan and his team. Such inflammatory information, originating in the security services and implicating a major rival regional power, would not be published without approval from the top. I would know — until mid-2016, I was the Washington reporter at one of Turkey’s last independent and secular newspapers, Cumhuriyet Daily, and our habit of reporting unapproved truths led to me, my editor, and 15 other journalists being labeled terrorists and either jailed or hounded into exile.
Most of the press that remains is relentlessly pro-Erdoğan. The Daily Sabah — once owned by the brother of Erdoğan’s son-in-law (who himself is the second most powerful official in the country, overseeing the Finance and Treasury Ministry) and still in pro-AKP hands — has played a significant role in publishing the leaks detailing Khashoggi’s apparent killing. And “leaks” is a generous way to describe them. Reporting these details would have been impossible without the permission and coordination of the AKP government.
Intriguingly, the leaks suddenly stopped around Oct. 13–14. This halt coincided with a phone call between Erdoğan and King Salman of Saudi Arabia in which the king thanked Erdoğan for agreeing to set up a joint Turkish-Saudi taskforce. The halt in Turkish leaks was so sudden, the New York Times reported, that it “frustrated American intelligence and diplomatic officials, who worried that the Turks were citing the evidence as leverage to get loans from the Saudis.”
The halt also coincided with the sudden release of the US pastor, Andrew Brunson, who had been imprisoned in Turkey for two years on flimsy allegations. The Trump administration had been demanding his release ever since taking office, eventually applying sanctions on Turkish officials and tariffs on its exports. Brunson was released Oct. 12 and met with Trump in the Oval Office the next day.
Trump thanked Erdoğan several times during that meeting, which was broadcast live by American national TV networks. Trump said that “we feel much different about Turkey today than we did yesterday.” Onlookers noted the foreign policy win was especially welcome news for the administration less than a month before the midterm elections.
But on Monday, Oct. 15, the leaks started again, and they haven’t stopped since. Nobody knows why, but Gönül Tol, a DC-based Turkey expert at the Middle East Institute, has a theory: that Riyadh and Washington may not be agreeing to the demands made by Ankara, which is turning up the media heat in response. In the days since, we’ve seen previously unreleased security camera images of an aide to the Saudi crown prince entering the consulate hours before Khashoggi’s disappearance, and heard the particularly gruesome detail that the journalist’s fingers were cut off while he was still alive — a line first leaked to Middle East Eye, an online outlet known for its sympathetic coverage of the Erdoğan government, before making it to the New York Times and other global outlets the next day.
Stock in the Saudi crown prince is now at an all-time low, with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham saying he should be removed from his job and one-time cheerleader Tom Friedman declaring him “radioactive.” But things can still get worse, especially if the reported audio (and maybe even video) recordings of Khashoggi’s death ever see the light of day. It’s clear that Erdoğan now has considerable leverage over his regional rival, and options to make him squirm even more than he already is.
It’s an impressive performance, and one that’s not so surprising to those of us who have been paying close attention to Erdoğan’s history of managing the media. Over more than a decade, he has gradually turned the Turkish press into his personal mouthpiece — critical independent outlets faced fines, administrative penalties, or trumped-up charges of tax evasion, and one by one they fell in line. The owners of these independent outlets were intimidated, threatened with losing public tenders, or worse. Erdoğan now has almost total control.
That control has been used to wage a war on the few critical journalists who remain, along with opposition leaders and civil society. All it takes is for the AKP-friendly media to dig up a small detail — perhaps a critical tweet written years ago, or a photo taken with someone sympathetic to the Gülen movement or Kurdish politicians — and suddenly that person is labeled a terrorist, with predictable consequences.
This March, right before the announcement of snap parliamentary and presidential elections, the Hürriyet media group was bought by a pro-government holding company, allowing Erdoğan to realize his decadelong effort of consolidating the national media under his control. But that ruthless consolidation of power has come at a price: He lost most of his friends in Western democracies along the way, and many in the Middle East as well.
The disappearance of Khashoggi provided the Erdoğan administration with an opportunity to roll back some of his losses, and it has been seized to the fullest. To the Western public, his government has come across as one outraged by the disappearance of a critical journalist, despite being the world’s foremost jailer of journalists. (It was no small irony to me that on Tuesday, in the midst of this publicity coup, the Turkish government sought to have an Interpol Red Notice issued demanding my arrest, with pro-government media flashing the news with joy and calling us “fugitives.”) That such a press-hostile government has appeared even momentarily to be interested in press freedom is an achievement in itself.
It’s not just public relations, though — this has also been a major geopolitical success. With the issue of Iranian sanctions due to be discussed in the coming weeks, leaders in Washington and Riyadh are eager for this issue to be put behind them — something that can only happen if Erdoğan agrees to play ball.
Central to the handling of this incident has been the operation of a domestic media fully under government control, with the help of two newly created information offices: one at Erdoğan’s presidential palace, and another at AKP headquarters. On the international level, the savvy handling of Western reporters is reminiscent of the good old days, back when Erdoğan was discussed in the international press as a Muslim reformer and his “Turkish model” cited as a way forward for countries in the grip of the Arab Spring.
He has been helped immeasurably, of course, by the behavior of Saudi Arabia, which appears to have committed a terrible international crime and barely bothered to conceal it. Instead of attempting to plant a counternarrative or introduce doubt or plausible deniability into the story, its own pro-government media resorted to absurd conspiracy theories. None of them have broken through into the global narrative, except when they are occasionally mocked. Finally, it released an official version of events that few outside the Trump administration and Saudi allies in the Middle East are taking seriously.
It seems clear that for the situation to be resolved in a way favorable to the US and Saudi Arabia, Erdoğan will need to receive some very generous gifts. These could range from things as straightforward as money — the Turkish economy is in serious trouble, and Saudi Arabia has extended generous loans to other countries as part of efforts to smooth diplomatic relations — to more complicated concessions involving the country’s many regional interests.
Among those interests: Turkey has close relations with Qatar, which is currently under Saudi blockade, and Iran, which is facing a new round of US sanctions. In Syria, it is battling the US-backed Kurdish militias that recently helped destroy ISIS, and it is looking to remain influential there as the civil war subsides. One of Turkey’s largest state-owned banks is currently under investigation by the US Treasury Department over sanctions violations and could face an enormous fine.
Nobody knows how this will end. But for those of us who have watched Erdoğan and his party consolidate control over the last decade, this latest performance is a reminder of why he so often gets his way.