Disappointed by media, Turks follow US trial on Twitter


Istanbul (AFP)

Left dissatisfied by the limited coverage in local media, Turks have taken to social networks to glean information on an explosive New York trial which is embarrassing Ankara.

The subject of their obsession is Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who has pleaded guilty to circumventing US sanctions against Tehran and who has accused Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of being implicated.

The only defendant in the US is Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the deputy chief executive of Turkish state lender Halkbank.

Given the sensitivity of the case, the majority of Turkish media have been cautious in their coverage of Zarrab's testimony over the past two days.

Some have completely ignored the revelations, while others have focused more on his "casual chic" attire in court on Thursday.

Neither state broadcaster TRT nor state-run news agency Anadolu have reported the most serious accusations made by Zarrab on Wednesday and Thursday during the hearings. He was to take the stand again on Friday.

To get around the minimal media coverage, some Turks have chosen to follow the trial on Twitter and comment profusely on Zarrab's statements shared in detail by New York-based journalists covering the trial.

For example, Pete Brush, a reporter for specialist website Law360, saw the number of his Twitter followers jump from 5,000 to 27,000 in on Thursday alone.

The majority of those sharing Brush's tweets have Turkish names or use Turkish pseudonyms.

Some have excitedly contacted "their" journalist during the hearings: "Come on, Pete, you've slept enough! Get to work, the whole of Turkey is waiting", "Come on Pete, give us the excitement" and "Send us the receipt for your transport, it's on us".

Another praised the "objectivity" of the journalist which critics say is lacking in a country where freedom of the press has been eroded in recent years.

- Hashtag wars -

Zarrab hinted in Thursday testimony that Erdogan knew about the actions he was carrying out with Halkbank to help Tehran circumvent US sanctions, saying that he had given "instructions" for other banks to participate in the scheme.

And on Wednesday, Zarrab admitted to paying tens of millions of dollars worth of bribes to ex-Turkish former economy minister Zafer Caglayan between 2012 and 2013 to facilitate illegal gold transactions with Iran.

While the pro-government media ignored these accusations, the hashtag #ZaferCaglayan was one of the trending topics on Twitter on Wednesday, a sign of the great interest in the case in Turkey.

The Manhattan trial deeply embarrasses Ankara, which denies violating the sanctions. It has also called the case a "plot" against Turkey.

But the risk of heavy fines on one or more Turkish banks in the event of a guilty verdict hovers over the country amid fears over the possible negative impact on the Turkish economy.

Since the start of the trial, social media networks, supporters and detractors of Erdogan have taken shots at each other with hashtags: #WeAreWithYou was popular with the first group while opponents used #REZAlet (a play on words with "rezalet" which means disgrace").

The opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet is one of the few national dailies reporting on the accusations in detail and putting the story prominently on the front page.

Cumhuriyet ("Republic") is one of the last independent newspapers in Turkey where many critical media outlets have been shut down.

The daily has itself been targeted in a hugely controversial trial in which a total of 17 current and former writers, cartoonists and executives from the paper are accused of supporting terror groups.

- Bubbling 'Twittersphere' -

The bestselling daily in the country, Hurriyet, covered the revelations on its front page on Thursday but came under a barrage of criticism for doing so.

The social media networks are one of the last spaces where freedom of expression remains relatively free because of the ability to be anonymous, even if the authorities are watching.

Turkey often tops the list of countries which demand the removal of content or the closing of accounts on Twitter.

Like each day since the trial began, especially since Zarrab began speaking, the Turkish "Twittersphere" was bubbling with excitement for his third day on the stand.

And the Twitter account of American journalist Brush was inundated with messages from impatient Turkish internet users.

One of them appeared to have cleared his social calendar on Friday for the latest episode of the saga, quipping: "Alright Pete, see you there."