Friends, colleagues and even spouses are reporting each other to law enforcement in Turkey as polarization in the society has intensified at the hands of the government since the July 15 coup attempt, according to UK’s Financial Times.
Both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the government has encouraged citizens to report on perceived state enemies. While even family ties would not be enough to prevent one from snitching on others, a segment of society is now mobilized to police spaces that the formal state apparatus cannot, Laura Pitel said in a detailed article for Financial Times on Thursday.
Below is the full text of the article.
“Browsing Facebook at home one Saturday, Bilgin Ciftci saw a post that made him chuckle. It was a montage of images of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan placed alongside Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. In the first, the president and the shrivelled inhabitant of Middle-earth shared a look of astonishment. The second showed both figures wide-eyed with wonder. In the third, Erdogan gnawed on a chicken drumstick while Gollum bit into a scaly fish.
Ciftci, a doctor from the western town of Aydin, clicked “share” and thought no more of it. But a few weeks later, he was summoned to see the police and charged with insulting the president — a criminal offence in Turkey. He lost his job at a public hospital and became trapped in a legal ordeal that has so far dragged on for more than 18 months. At one stage, the judge appointed a panel of Tolkien experts to advise whether Gollum should be deemed good or bad (they ruled that he is good at heart).
Amid the absurdity, there was another, darker layer to the story. When he shared the meme, Ciftci, 48, believed he was only showing it to those in his private Facebook network. But the police had a screenshot of his page. They had not hacked his account or snooped on his computer. The truth was far more unsettling: he had been betrayed by someone he knew. Ciftci deduced that the culprit was the husband of one of his relatives. When he called up to confront him, the relative first denied it and then hung up the phone.
Ciftci’s ordeal reflects something bigger happening in Turkey, something that could come straight from the pages of a dystopian novel. On an almost weekly basis, stories emerge of friends, colleagues and even spouses reporting each other for a catalogue of offences. “This has become a phenomenon in our society,” says Ciftci from a café near Aydin courthouse, an institution now more familiar than he could ever have imagined. “There are people who are more royalist than the king. They become citizen informers.”
All police and intelligence services routinely use infiltrators and informers in their efforts against organised crime and terrorism. Turkey — a country that last year suffered not only 267 separate terrorist attacks but also a violent coup attempt that left more than 200 dead — faces many genuine and deeply serious threats. But there are also countless stories of unpaid, ordinary citizens who have taken it upon themselves to become a volunteer army of informers.
History is rich with precedent for this kind of betrayal, from Hollywood stars reporting each other at the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunts to the vast network of informers who aided the Stasi in the German Democratic Republic. Turkey, too, has a substantial track record. The paranoid Sultan Abdul Hamid II tried to hold together the fraying Ottoman Empire with an army of official and unofficial snitches.
A US consular report from the early 1940s notes that Turks who disapproved of the government would frequently find that their “petty infractions” were discovered by police, at times with the help of secret informers “who seem to abound in this locality”. After a 1971 coup, the ruling generals’ fondness for “dear citizen informers” as a term for addressing the nation later spawned a play with the same name.
In today’s Turkey, in which opposition parties are toothless and all major media outlets brought to heel, realms such as the teahouse, the lecture hall or the Facebook newsfeed are harder to control. For several years the government has routinely urged elected neighbourhood officials to keep tabs on those in their local area. Increasingly, these calls have extended to ordinary citizens, too.
The motivation comes from the very top. “If there’s someone you know, wherever they are, inform our security services immediately,” President Erdogan urged in December, speaking in the wake of a series of deadly terror attacks. “This is not just the job of our security services.”
Egged on by such encouragement and aided by a flawed judicial system, loyal supporters now patrol both the public and private spheres. Some even boast about their exploits on social media. “In Turkey, it used to be considered shameful to give information to the intelligence agency or the police,” says Melda Onur, an opposition MP who recently shared the story of a taxi driver who reported a passenger for criticising the government. “An informer — if known — could not easily survive in our society,” she says. “This government shattered that idea.”
The stories of those who inform, and those they target, show the dark underbelly of a country riven by fear and intolerance — and serve as a warning to western societies grappling with their own political and social rifts.
Ali Dinc was little more than two years into his second marriage but it was not going well. From a bland café in a shopping mall on the outskirts of Izmir, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, he explains that he was working long hours as a lorry driver and then returning home to an increasingly abrasive home life.
The 40-year-old, whose spherical belly is a surprisingly pleasing complement to his round bald head, says he and his wife began to clash over politics. He claims she swore at President Erdogan while flicking between TV channels. He both loved the president and found it unbefitting for a woman to curse. “I would come home from work tired, sit down and eat my dinner and all I would hear is swearing,” he says. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”
One evening, he snapped and threatened to record her. She told him to go ahead, he says. He captured what he describes as “21 seconds of profanity” as she shouted at Erdogan, and took it straight to a local prosecutor. A criminal case was opened against her. Unsurprisingly, she filed for divorce, and the case became infamous in Turkey.
Dinc denies that he was motivated by anger and revenge. “It’s because I love the president,” he insists. “You can’t swear at someone who has done such great things for Turkey. He’s the head of state. He’s a great guy. I really love him.” He insists that even if they had been married for 20 years, he would have done the same thing. He clearly relishes the idea that his wife will be put in her place. Asked how she is faring; he says coolly: “She’s fine now. But when the trial begins she will understand the mistake that she’s made.”
He does not seem to find it remotely sinister that his ex-wife could face a jail sentence for something said in the privacy of her own home. Freedom of speech, he insists, is no more restricted in Turkey than in any European country. I tell him, in detail, of the notorious claim about David Cameron’s student encounter with a severed pig’s head — and explain that the authors of the book in which the allegation was made faced no legal consequence. After a stunned silence, Dinc says simply: “I have to change the subject. My God.”
Despite his protestations to the contrary, it is hard to believe that Dinc’s actions were not at least partly driven by the anger borne of a failing marriage. But he also shows the kind of quasi-religious devotion to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) that is common among its supporters, who make up roughly 50 per cent of the electorate. He speaks movingly of struggling to afford hospital treatment when his son was a baby — a problem that he says has been solved by the party’s reforms. In July, when he first saw the gleaming new Osman Gazi Bridge that would shave several hours off the journey to Istanbul, he cried tears of joy.
Ever since the AKP swept to power in 2002, there has been antagonism between the party’s supporters and those who vehemently oppose it — be they hardcore secularists, liberals, gay rights activists or those who support greater autonomy for the Kurdish-majority south-east. But the divisions widened as the AKP’s position came under threat, including from an over-assertive military. At the same time, Erdogan, first as prime minister and then as president, was emboldened by a series of growing electoral victories.
The anthropologist Jenny White has noted the fixation in Turkish political culture with the “traitors” out to destroy the nation, the “selfless heroes” ready to vanquish them and the macho, paternalistic “bigman” leader who will guide them in this struggle. These concepts tap into deeply ingrained fears that internal and external enemies are bent on the country’s destruction. The longer Erdogan has remained in power, White argues, the more he has fallen back on such tropes, developing an “extreme cult of personality in which he is presented as the heroic saviour of his people”. Critics, meanwhile, are “savaged” and “scapegoats cultivated and attacked as traitors”.
Such divisive rhetoric does not only go in one direction. It is not uncommon to hear diehard secularists pour scorn on women in headscarves and characterise AKP voters as uneducated, uncultured oafs. But it is the AKP that has the toolbox of government at its disposal. And as the divisions deepened, the rallying cries for citizens to inform on each other began to grow.
After the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests, when millions took to the streets across Turkey, Erdogan urged “my people” to “see clearly that young people were used as pawns by internal and external traitors”. He called upon citizens to report neighbours who banged pots and pans in support of the demonstrators. As he battled corruption allegations and further ripples of domestic unrest in the following months, he branded protesters “terrorists”, called foreign journalists “spies” and accused women who used birth control of committing “treason”.
You may have friends from that community. I say: denounce them. You must inform our prosecutors. This is the duty of a patriot
From the summer of 2015, following the collapse of a ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), Erdogan again picked up the theme of informing, urging elected officials to find out who in their area was a terrorist and report them to the security services. He railed against a group of academics who criticised the approach of the anti-PKK operations and argued: “There is no difference between a terrorist with a gun and bomb in his hand and those who use their work and pen to support terror. The fact that an individual could be a deputy, an academic, an author, a journalist or the director of an NGO does not change the fact that that person is a terrorist.”
Complaints from all sections of society began to grow. In Kayseri, a man was taken to a police station after an unknown person complained that he insulted the president during a conversation on a park bench. In Sanliurfa province, three teachers were reported to a civil service hotline for speaking Kurdish and allegedly praising a terror organisation.
Academics, in particular, voice concern about an increasingly stifling climate in their classrooms after a series of cases of students reporting their tutors to the university authorities — and even making clandestine recordings. The impact on academic freedom is devastating. “I feel less safe at lectures,” says one eminent professor in Ankara. “I tell my students not to record my lessons. But, really, how can I control what they do with their mobile phones? We have to be very careful.”
The call to inform gained a new sense of urgency after July 15 2016, when rogue elements in the military commandeered tanks and fighter jets to launch a violent but ultimately unsuccessful coup. Erdogan blamed the putsch on the Gulen movement, a powerful Islamic network that had been a close political ally until the relationship imploded in 2013. He described Gulenists as a malignant cancer that must be purged from the body of the Turkish state. Citizens, he stressed repeatedly, must help to give them up. “You may have friends from that community,” he said in October. “I say: denounce them. You must inform our prosecutors. This is the duty of a patriot.”
Thousands heeded the call. Reward payments reached record levels (up to £900,000 is on offer for the capture of the country’s most-wanted figures). According to the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), the number of people who got in touch online to offer assistance almost doubled from 34,000 in 2015 to 65,000 in 2016.
Newspaper pages filled with extraordinary stories of betrayal among friends, neighbours and even within families. A father in Kayseri was said to have informed police that two of his sons were Gulenists because he believed that they were laundering the organisation’s money. The newspaper Karar told of a family unconvinced by their son’s insistence that he had quit the movement. They warned police that he was about to flee to the US and he was arrested at the airport.
Police were inundated. A report published in Haberturk newspaper in October stated that officers were overwhelmed by the number of calls to their hotline. Many of the claims were not just baseless and rooted in personal problems, it said, but also a waste of police time.
Neither the Turkish presidency nor the interior ministry responded to questions for this article. But, more generally, officials bristle at criticism of the response to the growing tumult in their country. They ask how a British leader would respond if rogue army officers drove tanks on to Westminster Bridge and bombed the Houses of Parliament. “If it had succeeded, I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be talking to you today because I would not be alive,” says Ravza Kavakci Kan, an AKP MP. “We are talking about a situation in Turkey that would be worse than Syria. Any developed nation, when faced with an issue like this — a terrorist attack or a coup attempt — would expect citizens to report on suspect behaviour.”
Any developed nation, faced with an issue like this — a terrorist attack or a coup attempt — would expect citizens to report on suspect behavior.
But the accusation that someone is a Gulenist, in particular, can be nebulous. Though the group’s spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen, denies masterminding the coup attempt, foreign diplomats and analysts find it credible that his followers played at least some role. Authorities, however, are pursuing not only those accused of direct involvement but also those with subtler ties to the group. Its secretive nature makes it hard to prove or disprove an accusation of affiliation — and makes it an easy slur on someone’s character.
The government has warned citizens against making baseless accusations. Binali Yildirim, the prime minister, said that he would ask security services not to pay heed to anonymous tips after “injustices” caused by people wanting to “settle scores” or with “designs on someone else’s job”. But the calls to inform continue. After a bombing outside a football stadium by a Kurdish militant group that left 44 dead in December, the general-directorate of security launched a campaign urging citizens to report social media users who “support terror, spread terror propaganda or are terror sympathisers”.
Government critics warn that the perils of false or illegitimate complaints are compounded by the state of Turkey’s judicial system. Prosecutors and judges are terrified to drop cases for fear of themselves being branded terrorists. Many of their critical or independent-minded colleagues have already been sidelined or replaced with loyalists.
A recent report by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner warned that since 2014 the legal system has been weaponised by the government. Kerem Altiparmak, an expert on human rights law at Ankara University, says that this tactic is unprecedented. “In the 1980s, the state used more naked weapons like disappearances, torture,” he says. “Now the state is using ‘legal’ tools . . . Rather than controlling the abuse of law, the judicial system became the centre of this abuse.” A state of emergency announced after the coup attempt, and so far extended twice, gave the president the power to issue executive decrees that bypass parliament.
The Turkish government furiously rejects the notion that its judiciary is anything but fair, describing the Council of Europe’s allegations as “unacceptable”. Nor does it accept accusations of an increasingly intolerant environment. “Each case is different,” says Kan, the AKP MP. “But arguing that there’s no freedom of expression and that people aren’t allowed to be critical would be totally wrong . . . If it were true, the proportion of society who are anti-President Erdogan — a high percentage of the population — would all be in court.”
Critics, however, counter that a compromised legal system combined with a network of people ready and willing to police their fellow citizens makes for a devastatingly effective pairing. In a country with a strong, independent judiciary, a false claim can be scrutinised and then thrown out. Without such checks and balances, it has the potential to become life-shattering.
Despite being a self-described anarchist, Volkan Sevinc worked happily for several years at the state-run Natural History Museum in Ankara, the Turkish capital, a treasure trove of dinosaur skeletons and giant fossils. “It had fairly small numbers of visitors,” he says. “But it was the only place where children could come to learn about natural history and evolution.”
Though he loved his work curating fossils, Sevinc says that his views, as an atheist and veteran of protests for LGBT rights, clashed with those of his “reactionary” museum colleagues. The 31-year-old, whose face has the weathered look of someone who has inhaled too much cigarette smoke and tear gas, says he was the only male staffer who did not go to the mosque for Friday prayers. He cannot help but break into a grin as he tells how a colleague once asked why the cabinet on the evolution of man was not more in keeping with the teachings of Islam. The museum later removed the entire display.
This ideological friction seems to have particularly irked one of his co-workers — a woman whose Facebook page proudly features an image of her talking to the president. Last year, she took it upon herself to collect information about Sevinc’s out-of-work activities — including a 2010 conviction for insulting a police officer and “alienating the public from military service” after he protested in support of a conscientious objector. “How can someone like this work here?” she wrote on Facebook. She also uploaded her findings into an online reporting system run by the prime ministry. In February 2016, Sevinc was suspended while officials carried out an investigation. Then, in May, he was reinstated.
A mere two months later, the coup plotters struck and public institutions launched vast probes to root out alleged Gulenists. Sevinc jokingly told his bosses not to bother with him because he had already been investigated. But, by August, he was suspended again. The following month, he was fired, one of almost 100,000 public servants to lose their jobs under presidential decrees issued under the state of emergency.
All of those sacked were generically described as having links to terror organisations or other entities that threaten national security but Sevinc does not know the specifics of what he was accused of. He was never given the chance to defend himself. The energy ministry, which oversees his museum, did not respond to questions. It is hard for those fired in the purges to find even the most low-paid jobs. For now, a friend is helping Sevinc to train as a coffee barista but he has yet to find new employment.
He is sanguine about the colleague responsible for his predicament. “It’s not really about this woman,” he says. “It could have been anyone.” It is the fact that her complaint was taken seriously that upsets him most. “The point is that this is completely unjust. Even if you were talking about a member of one of these [terror] organisations, there is no process. Sure, if I do bad work, if I don’t work hard enough, open an investigation. But you are firing me on the basis of my ideas. My crime, ultimately, was not being like them.”
Some of the cases to have emerged in recent months would be funny were they not so serious. In December, Turkish media reported the story of a court clerk who accused his girlfriend of being a Gulenist after she shunned his marriage proposal. A columnist for a local newspaper in Elazig parodied the national climate with an imaginary exchange between a concerned citizen and a government hotline. “Dear concerned citizen, this is a tape recording,” it read. “Press 1 to inform on your neighbour, press 2 to inform on your friend, press 3 to inform on your fellow villager.”
But the stakes for Erdogan — and for Turkey — could not be higher as the country heads into an election campaign. On April 16, voters will have their say in a national referendum on plans to radically overhaul the system of governance. The proposals would abolish the role of prime minister (a role Erdogan held for 11 years) and formally transform the presidency from a ceremonial role to an executive one. Under the new system, Erdogan could rule until 2029.
With fears that the result could be tight, the president has returned to a discourse of traitors and heroes. “The position of those who say ‘No’ is taking sides with July 15,” he said in February, linking those opposed to the changes directly to the coup plotters as well as with the PKK.
A No vote is not a crime in Turkey. But that has not stopped overzealous citizens from treating it as such. The leftwing Sol newspaper reported last month that after getting into an argument with a customer about the referendum, an off-licence owner was reported to police and briefly detained. Melih Gokcek, mayor of Ankara, warned on Twitter recently that opposition posters and political slogans on walls were ruining the city and anyone seen putting up new ones should be reported to police.
It might be tempting for citizens of western countries to swaddle themselves with the notion that their states have moved on from the paranoid climate of the cold war. Steve Hewitt, a senior lecturer in history at Birmingham University and author of Snitch! A History of the Modern Intelligence Informer, is quick to strike that down. In most democracies, he says, it is simply that minorities face the brunt of informer systems. “I think in western societies because this very focused surveillance tends to be centred on marginalised groups, the broader public don’t tend to care so much.”
Since 9/11, it is often Muslims who have been the primary target. As home secretary, Theresa May imposed new guidance that required schools and universities to report students who show tendencies towards violent extremism or “create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism”. During the US presidential election campaign, Donald Trump called for “big consequences” for Americans who failed to report suspicions that neighbours were planning terror attacks.
But the US still has a very long way to go until it reaches Turkey’s level. The country is not just grappling with questions about the boundaries of freedom of expression or efforts to delegitimise and intimidate the press. Weeks away from a vote with vast ramifications for the nation’s future, academics are scared to discuss the subject with their students and No voters check themselves before clicking “post” on Facebook. At dinner parties, in taxis and at family gatherings, discussions are steered away from sensitive topics. With a segment of society mobilised to police spaces that the formal state apparatus cannot, many believe that they can never be too careful.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of all is that citizen informing is not only a symptom of a deeply unhealthy society — but also a cause of further sickness. In his book Naming Names, about the McCarthyite witch-hunts in Hollywood, the American journalist Victor Navasky writes that informers “pollute the public well”, “poison social life in general” and “destroy the very possibility of a community”.
Bilgin Ciftci, who now works as a private doctor after Gollum got him sacked, says that is precisely the point. “They are dividing people,” he says. “It goes against our national values. But that is what today’s leaders want.”