The Coup Attempt as Told by the West

August 26, 2016

I am an American, and for as long as I can remember I have loved newspapers. One of the best parts of my day is sitting down with a cup of coffee and combing through the headlines and opinion pages of the New York Times. Since I was young, it was a ritual that made me feel connected to the world, like I was a part of something bigger. And it was one of the reasons I became interested in Turkey.

But after living and working in Turkey for a year, I felt a gradual shift in the way I viewed and digested western media. I would turn to the international news section, bombarded by headlines that painted Turkey in a demeaning and negative light. The west can’t seem to categorize Turkey: it has been an economic powerhouse in a struggling region, but in the last few years has experienced financial instability with the lira loosing 10% of its value in 2015. It’s a secular democracy that has been a key ally in the fight in Syria, currently hosting over 3 million refugees within its borders, but also has deep Islamic, Ottoman roots, and a skepticism for outsiders. Because we can’t put this country into a neat, tiny box, many writers and reporters unintentionally perpetuate an unfair view of Turkey.

Too often, complicated issues between internal actors are boiled down to over simplifications that pave the way for readers to jump to conclusions. There is a tendency to report on Turkish political, social, and international news as if it is black and white, and much of this reporting seems to come from a place of misunderstanding or fear.

I’m not naïve-I know it is almost impossible to find an article that doesn’t reflect some bias; reporters are humans, shaped by their culture and experiences. But whenever I read about the country that had become my second home I got a gnawing feeling, however slight, that too many writers were relying on overworked clichés and unfair conclusions.

But that all changed on the night of July 15th. As reporters raced to recount the escalating siege and its aftermath, their biases, stereotypes, and misunderstandings were truly exposed, brought out in the cold, hard light. And in the weeks following the failed coup it became even more apparent that the bashing perpetuated by the West was not going to be recognized or apologized for.

Before we analyze the lack of fair and balanced reporting, it is important to take a second to put the failed coup in context. Let’s imagine the coup happened in the US. In the midst of military bombings, barricades, and bloodshed, a large group of citizens came together, showing a sense of solidarity and pride in their country that defied fear and violence. That night political parties didn’t matter. What mattered was protecting your country from a group that most Americans didn’t believe represented their best interest.

Now imagine if this siege on democracy was stopped dead in its tracks, and the solidarity shown by average citizens was what made the difference. But instead of waking up to news the next morning praising the bravery and courage of the nation, the rest of the world seemed to jump to false conclusions, focusing almost exclusively on negative facets of the coup attempt and bringing up old criticisms about your country. How would you feel?

For Turks, this actually happened.

First, let’s examine the media’s untimely delegitimization of Turkey’s democratic institutions.

Even in the early hours of the coup, internationally recognized news sources began to criticize the government, advancing an anti-Erdogan crusade without regard to its effect on the struggle taking place. The New York Times thought it would be the perfect time to re-publish the article “Turkish Leader Erdogan Making New Enemies and Frustrating Old Friends,” attacking the Turkish government at the very time it was fighting for its very life (Tavernise, 2016). There is nothing wrong with questioning world leaders, it’s the fact that editors thought it was a good idea to condemn the government at the exact same moment people from all different walks of life were in streets fighting violently to preserve democracy.

In the same vein, CNN highlighted Erdogan’s weaknesses when his fate was still in question with the article “Turkey’s beleaguered president addresses country on FaceTime,” while BBC published “Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Turkey’s ruthless president” in which they chronicled the President’s rise to power and domination (Pagliery, 2016). When an entire country is in a state of chaos, fighting together to stop a rogue group attacking their democracy, why would it be at that same time that you decide to emphasize the corruption and apparent weaknesses of the President?

Even worse, reputable new sources were putting out completely false and unsubstantiated statements.  Multiple sources including the Daily Beast reported that Erdogan was on the run, trying to seek asylum in Europe only a short time before he landed in Istanbul. Indeed, MSNBC tweeted “Senior US military source tells NBC News that Erdogan, refused landing rights in Istanbul, is reported to be seeking asylum in Germany” before they later deleted the tweet. Many even reported the coup as successful before receiving any confirmation from inside the country. Dr. Joshua W. Walker explained how western media “jumped on the bandwagon,” expressing his frustration with reporters who were “talking about, and analyzing, a successful coup, as opposed to being a little more circumspect and saying, ‘Let’s wait and see what happens’” (Whittington and Walker, 2016).

It is understandable that in unforeseen emergency situations like this one, rumors fly and factual errors occur, but the blatant lack of fact checking and verification with clear Turkey-bashing is what was so problematic. This event shook Turkey to its core. It didn’t just touch Erdogan or his supporters. It hit every single citizen, immigrant, Syrian refugee, and ex-pat in the country. So why was I not reading about the people of Turkey and how this was a win for democracy?

The second glaring issue was how much the media ignored the Turkish people’s triumph after overthrowing the plotters, discounting the bravery and sacrifice that was made by people from all different backgrounds in response to the attempted attack.

Since leaving Turkey after my Fulbright ended, I regularly keep in touch with my Turkish friends. The day after the failed coup, I reached out to several of them to ask them about their experiences, feeling as though I needed to compare my twitter feed to what was actually going on. Many emphasized the energy in the streets and the solidarity they felt with all citizens who had taken part in the protests. For Turkish citizens, living in a country where military coups have been a defining part of your history, and witnessing how Turkey has evolved into a country that will not accept another period of military rule, made them feel a sense of pride that I, and most Americans, can’t begin to understand.

There was also a lack of analysis covering what this coup illustrates on a larger socio-political level: a drastic shift in the character of the country with regards to how it views coups and the military. Indeed, Ayse Yircali and Sabiha Senyucel, directors of the Istanbul-based think tank PODEM, found that “the majority of Western analysis consolidated around one position: falling short of supporting the democratic legitimacy of the people, but rather preferring to put emphasis on stability” (2016). They conclude that the biggest takeaway from the coup that foreigners must realize is “the evolution of the social dynamic in Turkey that has come to a point where it will no longer tolerate the extermination of its will and freedom by force.” Part of my job at the Turkish Heritage Organization since the coup has been to analyze international news sources everyday. From my weeks of combing, I rarely, if ever, read articles celebrating Turkey’s political transformation or the refusal to accept another military takeover.

Dr. Aybet is one of many Turkish academics and correspondents who is disappointed by western media’s exaggerations and has been vocal about the lack of respect for turkey’s institutional processes. She believes that the coup attempt issued in “a new platform for solidarity and consolidation”, explaining that “I still think there are different opinions [in Turkey], but it has brought us together in unprecedented ways…We don’t want harsh words or people to tell us what to do” (THO, 2016). Outsiders who have no grasp on the processes and historical context of this young country have been quick to paint a picture of Turkey that discounts the leaps and bounds it has made in the past few decades. During a teleconference that THO hosted, both Dr. Michael Reynolds and Dr. Aybet argued that western media was writing about a Turkey of the past, seeing it as if it was the 1980’s, which has recently “unleashed some hurtful stereotypes.”

Many Turkish journalists such as Barçin Yinanç are weary of European journalists who have already written Turkey off as a dictatorship. In a July 26th letter penned to fellow journalists in Hurriyet Daily News, Yinanç wrote, “The direction Turkey will take moving forward might not be clear, but all shots are not yet called and Turkey is not yet a dictatorship… looking at Turkey through the lens of hatred for Erdoğan carries the risk of an unhealthy analysis of events unfolding in Turkey.” The weeks since the attempt should have been a time when the western world supported the Turkish people, viewing the squashed coup as a victory for democracy. Why do we seem to forget that the alternative would have devastated the country and relations with the US? Why do we discount the popular views of Turkish people as less than our own?

What worries me the most is how this reporting has affected my friends and family’s perceptions of Turkey. In the last two weeks, I have heard comments such as: “I can’t believe Erdogan is killing all these people…maybe a military-run government would have been good” and “Did you hear how the government actually planned the whole thing?” without any regard for how unverified these comments really are. This view that Turkey is no longer a democracy and that the coup attempt may have been justified is toxic. It’s foundation rests in the idea that the west gets to decide what a democracy is and what it should look like.

This type of bias affects US-Turkish relations. Because most Americans have not lived or even visited Turkey, media is there only reference point. Right now, it is fair to say most Americans do not have a clear grasp of what is going on, and this affects the collective conscious and how the two nations interact. The tensions resulting from the Gulen extradition question and the future of US-Turkish cooperation in Syria have been further complicated by sensationalist and unverified reporting. Political figures and policy makers are not immune from this.

Western newspapers and TV stations should take a second to step back and examine their own preconceived notions, examining what they choose to focus on and how they might influence US-Turkish relations. I am not arguing for or against the actions taken by the government or certain citizens during or after the coup. All I’m asking for is more balanced, nuanced, and well-researched reporting.

Sarah Houston, Coordinator at Turkish Heritage Organization

Please cite this publication as follows:

Houston S. (August, 2016), “The Coup Attempt as Told by the West   ”, Vol. V, Issue 8, pp.32 – 36, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (