Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Turkey's Sex, Lies and Videotapes

Claire Berlinski

If you are not allowed to keep these tapes on your computer, how can you threaten your enemies with them? The issue people should have been concerned about was not porn at all, but the implementation of a system that allows the government at will to to shut off channels of political dissent – a feat it managed quite successfully.

Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals did not criminalize all porn recently—it just ruled that anyone in possession of videos depicting oral or anal sex may be sentenced to prison. This followed a recent ruling identifying videos of gay and group sex as "unnatural"—that is, in the same legal category as videos depicting sex with animals, children and corpses, all of which are forbidden by Article 262.2 of the Turkish Penal Code. This article stipulates that owning, trafficking, distributing or publishing such videos will earn you one-to-four. The ruling followed the sentencing by a local court of a suspect to six months in prison for selling CDs that depicted what we in the decadent West might call "sending your husband off to the office happy."

The case went up to the Supreme Court of Appeals, which not only ruled that the defendant's sentence was too low, but declared that the activity in question was also "unnatural"— on a par with necrophilia. The court thus overruled the original sentence and replaced it with one consistent with Article 262.2.

As if this were not enough to chill the country's libido, the new ruling applies both to videos downloaded from the Internet or stored on a personal computer— in other words, it probably applies to every male with a computer in Turkey: according to Google, Turkey leads the world in searches for the word "porn" (followed, if you are curious, by Romania and Peru). As one Turkish friend put it, "Who wants to watch porn without oral sex?"

Bans on porn in Turkey are nothing new—after the 1980 coup, for example, the military imposed a desultory ban; but what really happened was that newspapers unable to report about anything else started competing on skin, until, by the end of the decade, porn was a growth industry. A Turkish friend recently nostalgically reminisced about the kids who sold Kleenex outside his favorite Beyoğlu cinema when he was growing up.

By the late 1990s, the porn industry here was apparently in its Golden Age. I don't know much about it and don't really want to do the research; I'll just take everyone's word for it. Then the AKP came to power and began cracking down. In 2004, members of the government passed legislation making it illegal to distribute "obscene" images, words, or texts through any means of communication – pretty much criminalizing the entire country. In 2005, they banned the four erotic television channels available on Turkey's sole satellite provider: Digiturk. Playboy TV, Exotica TV, Adult Channel, and Rouge TV all disappeared, to little outcry. No one watched porn on satellite TV anyway—it had long since entered the Internet age.

But then they went too far: They announced plans to filter the stuff off the Internet. Delicacy prevents me from listing the banned words, but their move prompted the kind of outrage usually not seen in Turkey: people who had never before expressed the faintest interest in attending a protest said they planned to attend one.

There were massive campaigns against the legislation on Facebook and Twitter, some of them quite sophisticated, defending the right to unfettered Internet access. The government was forced to back down: it would introduce a filtering system, it said, but adults could opt out.

The issue people should have been concerned about, of course, was not porn at all, but the technical implementation of a system that allows the government at will to shut off channels of political dissent – a feat it managed quite successfully.

The government has not given up the dream of banning porn, or books, for that matter. Last year, the Board for Protection of Minors from Obscene Publications brought a case against both the publisher and the Turkish translator of The Soft Machine by William Burroughs, pronouncing the book "incompatible with the morals of society and the people's honor," "injurious to sexuality" and "generally repugnant." The owner of the publishing house, Irfan Sanci, had been tried on similar charges the year prior, and was acquitted for publishing a Turkish translation of Apollinaire's The Adventures of a Young Don Juan. Now, however, the translator of The Soft Machine, Suha Sertabiboglu, faces up to three years in prison if convicted. The Board for the Protection of Minors also brought the publisher and translator of Chuck Palahniuk's Snuff to trial on charges of obscenity. Snuff is a satire of the porn industry, not an example of it, but the level of English language comprehension and literary sophistication one would need to appreciate this is far beyond that of the Board. The Board, by the way, has existed since 1921, but has been so somnolent that no one I know can even remember hearing about it until the AKP won its third term.

Given the number of politicians, generals, journalists and other figures who have been blackmailed with illegally filmed videotapes of their sexual activity, this new ruling puts blackmailers, in particular, in a legal conundrum: If you aren't allowed to keep these tapes on your computer, how can you threaten your enemies with them?

Illicit sex tapes were a major feature of the last general election campaign that brought the AKP back to power for its third and arguably least glorious term. One well-timed sex-tape scandal after another held the opposition parties hostage, and may have contributed to the AKP's capture of 326 votes in the 550 seat parliament—almost enough to put its proposals for constitutional reform to a referendum without the support of any other party. (Or perhaps it lost seats instead: Quite a bit of the country was just disgusted by the whole business.) Released just a month before the June 12 election, one tape appeared to show two (married) senior opposition party members engaged in a bit of rumpy-pumpy with female university students. The anonymous cinematographers warned the leader of the minority Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, that if he did not want to see more sex and audio tapes of his closest aides released, he might like to step aside.

It's possible that the wave of tape-scandals was an inside job: Some believed they were the work of a dissenting faction of the MHP. But they were also widely rumored to be the handiwork of the AKP or its supporters, and designed to push the MHP below the 10% election threshold. This would have barred the MHP from entering parliament and reassigned its seats to the parties that passed, giving the AKP the supermajority its members so badly wanted to be able to pass a new constitution without a referendum. It almost worked, too—the MHP squeaked in with just 53 seats.

While the technique of ridding oneself of political rivals by means of a well-timed sex-tape leak is hardly unknown to the West, in Turkey the ritual has certain unique cultural adaptations: In the pre-election videotape scandal, a group that called itself "Different Idealism" began systematically releasing videotapes of MHP leaders in indecorous poses with, as one columnist here chastely put it, "women who do that sort of thing for a living." Two video clips depicted Bülent Didinmez, a deputy chairman and former MHP İstanbul provincial branch leader and parliamentary candidate İhsan Barutçu involved in acts that definitely did not involve the women to whom they were married. The clips were released shortly after a videotape displaying deputy chairmen and Adana Deputy Recai Yıldırım and Kırşehir Deputy Metin Çobanoğlu in an "intimate" conversation with two women to whom they, too, were not wed. When MHP leader Bahçeli publicly demanded the errant party leaders' resignation, they stepped down.

Up to this point we are still in familiar territory—all of this could have happened in the West. But then Didinmez and Barutçu defended themselves by saying that they had taken the women in the videos as their second wives—so it was all in fact quite legitimate, you see. The men claimed that many of the ruling AKP members had second or third wives outside their civil marriages, so they were only doing the same thing. Not even John Edwards could come up with a defense like that.

Of course, no scandal in Turkey is complete without the accusation of a foreign conspiracy: Deputy MHP Chairman Faruk Bal indignantly announced that "this is a product of a plan by domestic and foreign circles, and those who wish to see parliament without the MHP in it are actors of this plan."

His explanation, however, did not fly. Ten high-ranking party leaders were forced to resign after videos were released of them engaged in various shades of sociability with women definitely not their wives in a house the MHP apparently maintained for these secret liaisons. Worst of all, one of these men was caught on film bitching to his mistress about Devlet Bahçeli, the MHP party leader. There is stupid, then there is really stupid. This is Turkey: Take a second wife, okay, but do not criticize the party leader.

It is customary, in Turkey, to blame Fethullah Gülen for these cinematographic feats. The aged preacher, who lives in self-imposed exile in the Poconos, is widely believed (not without reason) to control everything in Turkey, although most likely even he does not control these recreational partialities. State prosecutor Nuh Mete Yüksel, famous for indicting and imprisoning then-mayor and now prime minister Erdoğan for reading, at a party rally, a poem with a putatively anti-secular interpretation, filed for the arrest of Gülen on August 3, 2000, at the Ankara State Court of Security on the charge that his sympathizers and he had sought to overthrow the secular state. A mere year later, a secretly-taped video of Yüksel engaged in hanky-panky (rumpy-pumpy, indecorous activities, whatever you like ...) with a subordinate was released to the public. We can extend this list. If, for example, you want to know the fate of the journalist Ali Kirca, who broadcast the videotape of the Gülen sermon that prompted Yüksel to file those charges, try this Google search.

In fairness, it must be noted, that in Turkey there is a long secular tradition of videotape shenanigans. The main opposition CHP leader, Deniz Baykal was filmed in happy bonhomie with one of his party's female MPs, forcing him to resign -- a CHP inside job, most believe; and while few could approve of the method, everyone approved of the outcome. Baykal was a fossilized old bore with no hope whatsoever of winning an election—not that his mouse-like successor, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has been the improvement everyone had hoped for.

Incidentally, they—whoever "they" are—have not been confining themselves to blackmailing opposition politicians, generals and dissidents of all stripes. They have also been filming their kids. Turning people's kids into unintentional porn stars is about as dirty as it gets. Sadly, journalists who viewed the harassment of the family of the blind Chinese rights activist Chen Guangchen as beyond the unspeakable have not once suggested, as far as I know, that the humiliation and harassment of the families of dissidents in Turkey might be worthy of some moral outrage, as well.

Shortly before the Turkish police arrested the former 1st Army Corps commander General Hasan Iğsız on charges of "making propaganda campaigns against civilian groups and the government," photos of his son's bobbling and naked rear end were splashed across the tabloid press. The term "civilian groups" is a euphemism here—the group in question is the Gülen movement—and Hakan Iğsız, whose anatomy became mildly famous, is not in much doubt that Gülen's supporters were the cinematographers. Hakan, by the way, a sound technician, mentioned that he was in awe of the exceptionally high quality of their audio equipment—he said he had seen nothing like it in the industry before.

The really huge news for blackmailers, though, is the government's proposal to ban the publication in digital newspapers and the press of illegally-acquired sound recordings. Some believe that the purpose of this legislation is to protect prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from the kind of embarrassment to which he was exposed when it was revealed that his intelligence chief and personal confidant, Hakan Fidan, had been surreptitiously negotiating with the PKK—this despite Erdoğan's recent campaign bluster that had he been in charge when PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured, he would have had him hanged.

Erdoğan is now trying to arrange a deal to release the imprisoned military officers, who for years have been languishing in prison without a conviction. Why, you might wonder, does he want to do that? Well, we would all like to know, but the best we can do is guess. Perhaps he is worried that more officers will be hit, leaving in tatters what is left of the military. Perhaps he is worried that the Gülenist infiltration of the military has gone too far and is becoming a danger to him. Erdoğan may be many things; a fool is not one of them: The situation in Syria may have reminded him that he might actually need his military, and in particular the generals who know how to use it—the best of whom are all in jail.

This, of course, has the Gülen movement in a panic. There is no greater nightmare scenario for Gülen's supporters than the combined and considerable wrath of Erdoğan and the military. So in Turkey, as in the US, leaking season is here. The proposal to ban the publication of such recordings has the newspapers that plumped for the imprisonment of Turkey's top military brass, and who are sympathetic to Gülen—who is no longer sympathetic to Erdoğan—panic-stricken. Of late, Gülen's supporters have been releasing illegally-taped recordings almost every day, mostly from jailed military leaders in Hasdal prison. These recordings—unsurprisingly—reveal that the men in jail are furious and wish ill upon the people who put them there—many of whom happen to be, in their eyes, the journalists frantically leaking these tapes. Tapes are surfacing from their archives almost every day now, killing two birds with one stone: first, the tapes hint that if the officers are released, the military will take bloody revenge; second, the journalists need to empty their pockets before their recordings are banned.

It is rumored that Gülen's supporters have quite the collection of recordings of Erdoğan and his intimates (political or otherwise). It is also rumored -- and pretty obvious -- that they are threatening Erdoğan with the release of recordings by means of unsubtle messages conveyed by sympathetic journalists such as Emre Uslu and Mehmet Baransu, who hint darkly on Twitter of their knowledge of "iğrenç" information— a word Turkish for "disgusting," and precious for its onomatopoeic aptness. I could not with certainty say this is what is happening—I'm not the one putting hidden cameras under people's beds—but if I were a betting woman, I would place every penny I had on it.

Turkey is one of the world's most opaque countries, so it is hard to discern which snake is biting which tail in this story, which broke the other week:

Police and specially authorized prosecutors raided several homes and military buildings across the country yesterday as part of an ongoing probe into an alleged espionage ring. ...

The locations searched included secure military buildings, including the General Command of the Turkish Gendarmerie Forces, the Navy, the Special Forces Command top secret room and the Military Hospital (GATA) in Ankara.

The latest raids were part of an investigation launched in İzmir last month into allegations that secret military documents were acquired through blackmail. According to the probe, nine active-duty members of the military allegedly used a prostitution ring to blackmail high-ranking officers and obtain confidential information about the Turkish military.

The members of the prostitution ring allegedly recorded secret footage of high-ranking officers as they had sexual intercourse with escorts and later used the footage to blackmail them. The active-duty soldiers police arrested had been blackmailed themselves and later participated in ensnaring their colleagues. They also allegedly profited financially from the ring's activities.

There is almost certainly more to this than what you just read. And this is the model democracy we are promoting to the Middle East?

Claire Berlinski


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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