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Background of an eventful daily briefing at the State Department

Ilhan Tanir, Washington DC

The U.S. State Department press briefing on Tuesday, October 24th, was eventful. As a journalist who has attended these briefings for a decade or so, I do not think I have ever witnessed a one quite like it.

Spokeswoman has a background in journalism

First of all, it should be noted that the current U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert has a background in journalism. Her last job as a journalist was as a news anchor for the conservative television channel Fox News. Because of that, compared to many other spokespeople, she is aware of what journalism is. She knows the profession and has respect for it. In contrast, the last spokesman of the Obama era, John Kirby, was a military officer, and he often looked and spoke like a soldier when it came to issues related to Turkey. Earlier spokespeople I have covered, including PJ Crowley (2009–2011), had political or diplomatic careers. In this regard, Nauert differs from the others in that she knows journalism inside out.

Not many expected anyone from the Trump administration to voice strong concerns over the democratic standards of other countries in the beginning. However, compared to previous spokespeople, Nauert has been vocal about deteriorating freedoms in Turkey and has used some of the toughest language on Turkey-related issues.

Nauert can also be seen as the most successful spokesperson in the current U.S. government.

U.S.-Turkey relations keep going upside-down during the Trump era

Nauert’s tenure of the job has coincided with a period in which U.S. troubles with Turkey have grown and multiplied.

In Turkey, one-and-a-half years after the failed coup attempt, journalists are still being arrested. 

Despite President Donald Trump’s efforts to secure the release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, he has now been in jail in Turkey for more than a year and new charges have been brought against him.

As the opening date approaches of the U.S. trial of Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has ramped his rhetoric against the United States.

Two Turkish U.S. consular staff members have been arrested, and pro-government newspapers say the warrant for a third consular official is on its way. In short, Nauert’s sharper tone towards Turkey is due to relations that have deteriorated in a very short time since the new administration came to power in Washington.

AKP media in Washington

In Washington, the number of Turkish media members who work closely with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government or directly with the state has increased in recent years. I do not know the exact numbers, but I think the number of AA, IHA, TRT World, and other pool (pro-AKP) media journalists exceeds two dozen. That means they have a budget of millions of dollars per year. 

The only mission of these media members in Washington is to ask questions – some of them probably coming directly from Ankara – that reflect the interests of the AKP government. Sometimes these media members have performed other services in Washington such as taking photos of certain people for pro-AKP media organs, and feeding all sorts of conspiracy theories.

Some of them are lauded at home for “sweating” U.S. spokespeople in Pentagon press briefings with “difficult” questions when anti-ISIS coalition battles are discussed. In fact, American reporters have engaged in much stronger verbal quarrels with administration spokespeople, but American reporters treat everyone this way, including their own government. So what about the pro-AKP pool media people?

The problem is that while some members of AKP’s pool media dare to pose harsh questions to U.S. spokespeople, they would not dare to ask a single question that could cause a problem for the AKP. 

For instance, these media members have not asked about the hundreds of imprisoned journalists in Turkey even once. They also do not ask about Turkey’s democratic standards.

They do not ask these types of questions to U.S. spokespeople because it could put their own government in a difficult position. So are they asking any critical questions to their own government? Nope. Never. And U.S. officials who deal with Turkey are well aware of these facts. They know that they are not dealing with journalists, but spokespeople of another government.

Pro-AKP media personnel themselves cannot raise their voices for press freedom in Turkey. In fact quite the opposite, they are ready to hunt down those who dare to ask critical questions to U.S. spokespeople or other U.S. officials concerning issues of Turkey’s democracy and freedom. This is one of the main reasons why there are so few Turkish journalists in Washington who can bring the issues of freedoms in Turkey to light. The pro-government media members in Washington immediately attack critical journalists on social media and incite Turkish followers to create a threat against them.

On Tuesday’s eventful press briefing

On Tuesday, during the State Department briefing, a reporter from Sabah group, closely linked to Turkey’s Erdoğan government, posed a question about posters of Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Öcalan’s in the newly liberated Islamic State capital of Raqqa and a video that defended the decision to raise those images.

The spokeswoman first started giving the usual type of answer, saying that all parties should avoid such actions that “would be seen as offensive or create any additional tensions”. Talking to the reporter who asked the question, she added that the U.S. government “works closely with Turkey, as you are well aware”. Since the reporter works for a group that is very much aligned with the Turkish government, spokeswoman Nauert hinted that the journalist should know about these close relations as well. She ended her response by saying: “You’re a reporter from Turkey; you work for a government publication, a government-private partnership publication. We work with Turkey to try to fight terrorism and increase regional stability.”

This response received an angry objection from the same reporter, saying he worked for a private company, and then the conversation continued: 

REPORTER: So it’s a private company. It doesn’t —

MS. NAUERT: Oh, yours is?

REPORTER: Yeah.

MS. NAUERT: Okay, okay. 

REPORTER: It’s not owned by the —

MS. NAUERT: No government funding, right? No government funding?

REPORTER: No, no government funding.

MS. NAUERT: Okay, okay. Mm-hmm. Okay.

This continued with some more angry behaviour from the same reporter after the briefing. The spokeswoman was visibly upset. Since this last part was a background event, I am not free to report on it all, except to say I have never seen such unprofessional behaviour towards any official during a decade of witnessing these press briefings. 

So is Turkuaz Group, which owns Sabah newspaper, AHaber, and others, really a private company? Or it is a private-public enterprise, as the spokeswoman suggested?

Well. The group is owned by the Albayrak family, a scion of which is Berat Albayrak. He is married to Erdoğan’s daughter. Albayrak is also the energy minister and is known to be the second most powerful figure in the government and in the country. The Albayrak media group, for all intents and purposes, is a private-government enterprise that does not make a single critical report about the Erdoğan government. Any implication that this group may have some kind of editorial independence is a farce, and everybody knows that. Sabah does not even pretend to be doing independent journalism, but apparently its reporter does.

Is this the first time this has happened? 

In the past, U.S. administration spokespeople have given this kind of treatment to other media members, especially to Russian reporters, rebutting their “pointed” questions by reminding them that they are working for state news agencies and that they are not pursuing journalism, but scoring points.  

At this point, it should be recalled that U.S. Ambassador John Bass, who just left Turkey a week ago, did not invite pro-AKP media representatives to his farewell press briefing due to their “lack of journalistic ethics”. 

The same pro-AKP media’s aggressive attacks and lynching of the two arrested U.S. Consulate workers also added salt to the wound. 

This list could be much longer. What happened on Tuesday is a reflection of the recent tensions between the Erdoğan government media and U.S. institutions, tensions that stem from many issues. Even though the question from the AKP media reporter was not a provocative one this time, he received a “reminder”.

For the spokeswoman, and for the people in that room and across the world, the response of the reporter who said “we’re a private organisation” that therefore enjoyed any kind of editorial independence is laughable. 

The main problem for pro-AKP media members in Washington is that they do not have the power as they do in Turkey to make others accept them as legitimate journalists, including U.S. officials. 

Edited by: Sarah Metzker Erdemir

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