June 26, 2012
TURKEY’S SUPREME COURT PUTS BLACKMAILERS IN AWKWARD POSITION
The news from Turkey, journalists here always complain, comes so hard and fast that they just can’t keep up with it. The Supreme Court obviously decided to take pity on them last week by declaring war on porn. Now, they didn’t criminalize all porn—let’s not exaggerate here—but the Supreme Court of Appeals 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 category, legally speaking, as videos depicting sex with animals, children and corpses, all of which are forbidden by Article 262.2 of the Turkish Penal Code. That article stipulates that owning, trafficking, distributing or publishing such videos will earn you one-to-four. The “no-blowjobs” ruling came—so to speak—after a suspect was sentenced to six months in prison by a local court for selling CDs depicting 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 hanky-panky in question was also “unnatural”—that is to say, 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 wasn’t enough to put a damper on the country’s libido, the new ruling applies to videos downloaded from the Internet or stored on a personal computer—which in other words means it probably applies to every male in Turkey with a computer, because according to Google, when it comes to searching for the term “porn,” Turkey leads the world (followed by Romania and Peru, if you’re curious). You have to imagine they’re not searching out of mere academic curiosity. (As one Turkish friend put it to me, “Who wants to watch porn without oral sex?”)
Now, bans on porn in Turkey are nothing new—after the 1980 coup, for example, the government proposed a desultory crackdown; but what really happened was that papers unable to report about anything else started competing on skin. So by the end of the decade, porn was a growth industry—not long ago, I heard a Turkish friend wax nostalgic about the kids who sold Kleenex outside his favorite Beyoğlu cinema when he was growing up. (Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end … )
By the late 1990s, the porn industry here was in its Golden Age, but to be truthful 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, they passed legislation making it illegal to distribute “obscene” images, words, or texts through any means of communication, which pretty much criminalized the whole country—except, perhaps, for my innocent cleaning lady. In 2006, they banned the four erotic television channels available on Turkey’s sole satellite provider, Digiturk. Playboy TV, Exotica TV, Adult Channel, and Rouge TV disappeared, but there wasn’t much outcry; by this point, no one watched porn on satellite TV anyway—it had long since entered the Internet age.
But then they went a step too far: They announced plans to filter the stuff off the Internet. (Studying the list of words to be banned was most enlightening. Delicacy prevents me from discussing them, but let’s just say that I wish my Turkish friends had told me about the number 31, rather than just letting me use it as if it were merely the number between 30 and 32. I’m sure they were privately laughing themselves half to death.) Interestingly, this prompted a kind of outrage different in degree and kind from the outrage I usually see in Turkey in response to the latest outrageous proposal, whatever it is. I was always mystified, for example, by the weary, resigned acceptance of the YouTube ban (which has now been lifted). But when they proposed to filter the filth off the Internet, I heard people who had never before expressed the faintest interest in attending a protest tell me that they planned to attend one. Actually, come to think of it, I think I only heard young men say that.
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: They would introduce a filtering system, they said, but adults could opt out. The flame of dissent flickered and then sputtered out—a shame, that, because the issue people should have been concerned about wasn’t porn at all, but the implementation of a system that allows the government at will to shut off channels of political dissent, which they managed to do quite successfully.
Mind you, they obviously haven’t given up the dream of banning porn, either. Or books, for that matter. Last year, the Board for Protection of Minors from Obscene Publications brought a case against the publisher and translator of the Turkish translation 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 in the past, notably the year prior when he was acquitted for publishing a Turkish translation of Apollinaire’s The Adventures of a Young Don Juan. The Soft Machine’s translator, Suha Sertabiboğlu, faces up to three years in prison if convicted. They also brought the publisher and translator of Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff to trial on charges of obscenity. This is actually a satire (albeit an incompetently executed one) of the porn industry, not an example of it, but the level of English language comprehension and literary sophistication you’d need to appreciate that is so far beyond that of the Board that they would have had a better chance of independently solving Fermat’s last theorem than figuring that out. The Board, by the way, has existed since 1921, but it had since been so somnolent that no one I know could even remember hearing about it until the AKP won its third term.
But there are yet more interesting points to note about this story. Given the number of politicians, generals, journalists and other figures who have been blackmailed with illegally filmed videotapes of their sexual activity, you can clearly see that this new ruling puts blackmailers, in particular, in a legal conundrum. If you’re not even allowed to keep them on your computer, what are they going to threaten their enemies with now?
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 their proposals for constitutional reform to a referendum. (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, to step aside if he didn’t want to see more sex and audio tapes of his closest aides released.
The wave of tape-scandals was widely rumored to be the handiwork of the AKP or its supporters, designed to push the MHP below the 10 percent election threshold. This would have barred them from entering parliament and reassigned their seats to the parties that passed, giving the AKP the supermajority it so badly wanted 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” (different, and how) 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 may or may not have been unnatural but definitely did not involve the women to which they were married. They were released shortly after a videotape displaying deputy chairmen and Adana Deputy Recai Yıldırım and Kırşehir Deputy Metin Çobanoğlu in an obviously, “intimate” conversation with two women to whom, likewise, they were not wed. MHP leader Bahçeli publicly demanded the errant party leaders’ resignation. They stepped down.
Now, we’re still in pretty familiar territory up to this point—all of this could happen in any Western country, especially in the US. 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 kosher, you see. The men claimed that many of the ruling AKP members had second or third wives outside their civil marriages, and they were only doing the same thing. Not even John Edwards could come up with that defense. 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 didn’t fly. In total, ten high-ranking party leaders were forced to resign after videos were released of them engaged in various shades of hanky-panky with women—definitely not their wives—in a house the MHP apparently maintained for these secret liaisons. Worst of all, one of them was caught on film bitching to his mistress about Devlet Bahçeli, the MHP party leader. There’s stupid, then there’s 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 accomplishments. The aged preacher, who lives in self-imposed exile in the Poconos, is widely believed (and not without reason) to control everything in Turkey, although I doubt that even he controls these politicians’ pants-zippers and their free will. State prosecutor Nuh Mete Yüksel, famous for indicting and imprisoning then-mayor and now prime minister Erdogan for reading a poem with a putatively anti-secular interpretation at a party rally, filed for the arrest of Gülen on August 3, 2000, at the Ankara State Court of Security on the charge that he and his sympathizers sought to overthrow the secular state. A mere year later, a secretly-taped video of Yüksel engaged with a subordinate in what we in the Western world call “doing what comes naturally” was released to the public. We can extend this list. For example, if you want to know the fate of journalist Ali Kirca, who broadcast the videotape of the Gülen sermon that prompted Yüksel to file those charges, try a Google search under his name.
But it must be noted, in fairness, that there is in fact a long secular tradition of videotape shenanigans in Turkey, too. The main opposition CHP leader Deniz Baykal was filmed in flagrante delicto with one of his party’s female MPs, forcing him to resign. This was a CHP inside job, or so 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 initially hoped.
Incidentally, they—whoever “they” are—have not been confining themselves to blackmailing opposition politicians, generals and dissidents of all stripes. They’ve been filming their kids, too. There’s playing dirty (pun intended) and then there’s playing really dirty. Making people’s kids into unintentional porn stars is playing about as dirty as it gets. Interestingly, journalists who viewed the harassment of the family of the blind Chinese rights activist Chen Guangchen as beyond the pale haven’t 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, too.
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 butt became mildly famous, is not in much doubt that Gülen’s supporters were the cinematographers. Hakan, by the way, is a sound technician. He told me that he was in awe of the exceptionally high quality of their audio equipment—he’d seen nothing like it in the industry before.
But the new porn laws aren’t the only blow (so to speak) to blackmailers in Turkey. The really huge news 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 have been languishing in prison without conviction for years. Why, you might wonder, does he want to do that? Well, we’d all like to know, but Turkey isn’t Transparency Central, so the best we can do is guess. Perhaps he’s worried that more officers will be hit, leaving what’s left of the military in tatters. Perhaps he’s worried that the Gulenist infiltration of the military has gone too far and is becoming too much of a danger to him. My guess is that Erdoğan may be many things, but he’s no fool: The situation in Syria has reminded him that he may actually need his military, and in particular he might need 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’s no greater nightmare scenario for them than the combined and considerable wrath of Erdoğan and the military. So in Turkey, it’s leaking season. 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—in a panic. Of late, they’ve 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. Some of them apparently wish quite a bit of ill upon the people who put them there—who just happen to be, in their eyes, the journalists who are now frantically leaking these tapes. These are surfacing from their archives almost every day now, killing two birds with one stone: First, they hint that if the officers are released, they’ll take bloody revenge; second, they need to empty their pockets before their recordings are banned.
It’s rumored that Gülen’s supporters have quite the collection of recordings of Erdoğan and his intimates (political or otherwise). It’s also rumored (and I’d say pretty obvious) that they’re threatening him with the release of these 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” videos—that’s the Turkish word for “disgusting,” which I treasure for its onomatopoeic aptness. Now of course, I couldn’t say that this is what’s happening with certainty—it’s not as if I’m the one putting hidden cameras under people’s beds—but if I were a betting woman, I’d place every penny I had on it.
Turkey being one of the world’s most opaque countries, I can’t even begin to imagine which snake is biting which tail in this story, which broke last Friday:
“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.”
All I can say is this: There’s probably more to this than what you just read. And this is the model democracy we’re promoting to the Middle East.