In Turkey, soap opera meets ISIL, government spin and the ‘parallel state’

Producers are mining the political present for inspiration — and practicing self-censorship

On the set of "Reaksiyon," one of a new class of films and television shows that oozes pro-government spin.
Guy Martin

ISTANBUL — It’s the last episode of the first season and a lot of people are dead. The conniving Agabey, a Muslim cleric who teamed up with a U.S. general to send several government ministers to their graves, has been disposed of by Yavuz, a former intelligence chief. Oguz, a special-ops agent with a big heart and high cheekbones who could never decide if he loved his girlfriend more than his mother and his mother more than his country, is dead because he crossed Ibrahim, a debauched hit man, and because the actor who played him reportedly turned up to work reeking of alcohol. Duygu, a military prosecutor, is dead because she happened to be Yavuz’s niece. Ibrahim is dead because, really, he had it coming.

Fittingly, the day’s set is a cemetery. The camera closes in on Yavuz, who stands by Duygu’s grave, overcome with remorse for killing her father. His hapless minion, Abbas, a mustachioed, gelled-up bundle of Turkish alpha-male stereotypes, lingers nearby, wondering, to judge by the look in his eyes, if he will ever kill enough Israeli spies, NATO soldiers and Iranian arms traffickers to earn his boss’s respect or even a hug. As soon as the camera stops rolling, the actor who plays Abbas, eager to hone his on-screen persona, decides to challenge one of the assistant producers to a mock stare-down. The two men keep it up for all of three or four seconds. And burst into giggles.

Welcome to “Reaksiyon” (“Reaction’), a nod to America’s “Homeland” — and part of a new crop of Turkish TV dramas that have managed to marry fiction, reality, propaganda and conspiracy theory.

Over the past decade, Turkish soap operas have taken much of the world by storm, raking in roughly $150 million in foreign sales in 2014, up from just $10 million in 2008. Shows like “Magnificent Century,” which dramatized the life and times of an Ottoman sultan, have been leading the charge. The series attracted 200 million viewers worldwide, helped prompt a tourist wave to Turkey from the Arab world and the Balkans, and kindled the obsession, both at home and abroad, with all things Ottoman.

While Turkey’s imperial past remains a gold mine for TV producers, some of them are training their sights on an equally rowdy, riveting subject: the political present. Exit the sultans, eunuchs and harem intrigues. Enter Turkey’s peace process with Kurdish rebels, the fratricidal war between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a shadowy religious movement, and the country’s dealings with Islamic State and the Levant, or ISIL, fighters.

Also, enter censorship. With businessmen close to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, having acquired a number of newspapers and channels over the past several years; with owners of other media groups reluctant to ruffle feathers for fear of losing out on lucrative state contracts; and with Erdoğan cracking down on dissent, especially in the wake of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, many of the new political thrillers have been oozing with pro-government spin.

“Reaksiyon,” which aired on Star TV, a channel that has toed the government line since being sold four years ago to one of Turkey’s biggest conglomerates, Dogus Media Group, has been a glaring example. From episode one onward, the show has hammered home the idea that a “parallel state” has infiltrated the Turkish bureaucracy to carry out a vendetta against top spies and key government figures. Erdoğan has claimed the same for over a year, accusing police officials and prosecutors loyal to an exiled cleric, Fethullah Gülen, of engineering a corruption scandal that brought down four AKP ministers in late 2013. Hundreds of Gülenist policemen have since been arrested on wiretapping and conspiracy charges. More recently, the government has demanded that Gülen, who lives in the U.S., stand trial on coup charges.

Even the show’s repertoire of conspiracy theories appears to have been curated to suit the narrative peddled by pro-AKP newspapers each day, i.e. that Erdoğan’s government is in the crosshairs of an international plot. Among other things, “Reaksiyon” viewers have learned that the U.S., Iran and Israel have teamed up to unleash ISIL on Syria to stir up tensions between Sunnis and Shias, keep Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in power, and weaken Turkey’s influence in the region. In one episode, an agent with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, recruits jihadi fighters to Turkey, helps provide them with press credentials and tries to smuggle them into Syria. In another, a U.S. commander and a group of parallel-state operatives try to derail Turkey’s peace process with Kurdish militants ahead of key elections for Parliament. “We need to break free of NATO,” a Turkish spymaster tells one of his charges. “We’re ready to make a new beginning.”

“Reaksiyon” has not been alone. Using current events as a point of departure, “Kizilelma,” a series broadcast on state television, has served viewers a hagiography of Turkey’s increasingly powerful intelligence agency. “Kod adi KOZ” (Code Name: KOZ),” a film whose script reads like an Erdoğan speech, bursts with references to a global conspiracy to unseat the Ankara government; it hit theaters in February. An upcoming movie, “Darbe” "(Coup),” will detail a foiled attempt by the parallel state to indict Turkey’s top spy. The shows have had a mixed reaction from audiences — “Reaksiyon” will not return for a second season and "Kod adi KOZ" is poised to be a box office flop.

'They’re asking cultural producers to take sides, telling them, ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us.'

Yeşim Burul Seven

media expert and film critic

"Reaksiyon" aired on Star TV, a channel that has been extremely cautious about running afoul of government censors since its sale four years ago to one of the country's largest conglomerates.
Guy Martin

Turkey is no stranger to censorship. In this year’s Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, the country placed 149th out of 180. Scores of journalists are routinely fired for criticizing the government or covering taboo subjects; news channels cut to wildlife documentaries at the height of mass anti-government protests; and top officials instruct media bosses to remove offending content. As a recent Financial Times article revealed, Turkish authorities have formally banned media coverage of more than 150 issues since 2010.

Today, say observers, the culture of intimidation that has pervaded Turkish newsrooms for years appears to be trickling down to TV and film studios. “Popular culture, including TV dramas and movies, is a new ideological battleground for the AKP,” said Asli Tunç, a professor of communications at Istanbul Bilgi University.

When media outlets come under the sway of tycoons with political or business connections to the ruling party, those working for them tend to fall into line. “Especially since the start of civil disobedience and unrest in 2013, the government has become more paranoid,” said Yeşim Burul Seven, a media expert and film critic. “They’re asking cultural producers to take sides, telling them, ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us.’ ”

Under such circumstances, shows tend to give sensitive topics a wide berth. Those that choose to riff on political themes either promote the government narrative, take pains to avoid challenging it outright or risk paying the price for failing to do so. Early last year, after “Kizilelma” aired a string of episodes featuring the kidnapping and torture of Turkish agents by ISIL fighters, an official police bulletin accused the show of “disparaging” the Syria- and Iraq-based combatants. This January, the director and screenwriter of “Tek Turkiye” (“One Turkey),” another series, were detained on charges of using the show to engineer what police called a “perception operation” against a suspected al-Qaeda affiliate. The show, as paranoid in its criticism of the Erdoğan government as others are in its defense, was aired on a channel run by Gülen sympathizers.

Even “Reaksiyon” has had a few minor run-ins with censors. “If we have alcohol, cigarettes or blood on screen, they get pixelated,” said one of the show’s makeup artists, referring to rules set by Turkey’s broadcasting authority. When the show’s makers taped a long sequence featuring a character modeled on Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist group, Star TV decided to cut it. Likewise, when “Reaksiyon” introduced its audience to an Iranian agent called Kazim Suleyman, a stand-in for the real-life Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s powerful Quds Force, his name was bleeped out.

“There’s very little room for maneuvering anymore in popular television, but a lot depends on who owns the channels where a series is being broadcast,” said Seven. “Some channels have more space to articulate oppositional views. But channels that are closer to the government operate under self-censorship. They know they need to be careful.” 

'In Turkey, there’s even more self-censorship in TV than there is in the press. Journalism is about ideals. In entertainment, we’re part of a business, and we want to survive in this business.'

Başar Başaran

lead writer of "Reaksiyon"

The 10-year-old "Valley of the Wolves," a television show with numerous spinoff films, is the granddaddy of Turkish political dramas.
Mustafa Ozer / AFP / Getty Images

If shows like “Reaksiyion” have parroted the government line from the get-go, the granddaddy of Turkish political dramas, “Valley of the Wolves,” has taken it up more gradually and earlier. The controversial hit series and its numerous spinoffs, including a film that starred American actor Gary Busey as a Jewish doctor who harvested body organs removed from Iraqi children, have shadowed Turkish political life for more than a decade. Increasingly, however, its script has lately begun to resemble the AKP government’s.

“In recent years the producers, one of whom actually stars as the show’s lead character, have become very closely affiliated with the government,” said Seven. “Their script has become much more tailored to the needs of the government. … One day, you’d be reading about the head of Turkish intelligence planning an operation, say in Iraq, and the next evening you’d be watching Polat [the show’s hero] carrying out the same operation on TV.”

Speculation has since mounted that “Valley’s” makers may have been coached by government public-relations experts. Late last year, Turkish media reported that the show had hired Yiğit Bulut, president Erdoğan’s main economic adviser, as a consultant. Bulut, who once claimed that Lufthansa, the German carrier, had been behind the Gezi Park protests and that outside powers had been trying to kill Erdoğan through telekinesis, has denied all such reports.

The makers of “Reaksiyon,” many of whom previously worked on the “Valley” franchise, also dismissed any suggestions of outside influence.

“We faced absolutely no interference, no censorship and no warnings from anyone, including the channel,” said Başar Başaran, one of the show’s lead writers. He did acknowledge, however, treading carefully. “We’re mature enough to understand the political situation,” he said. “We know what the channel can broadcast and what it cannot.”

“In Turkey, there’s even more self-censorship in TV than there is in the press,” he added. “Journalism is about ideals. In entertainment, we’re part of a business, and we want to survive in this business.”

'In theory, we could do a series on corruption in government. But no mainstream channel would run it.'

Onur Tan

"Reaksiyon" director

If “Reaksiyon” didn’t have the benefit of a tip or two from a government insider, it turns out to have had plenty of foresight. In December, Turkey’s prime minister dropped a bombshell by accusing the Gülen movement of working hand in hand with the PKK. “Reaksiyon” had devoted a whole episode to the subject weeks earlier, showing Kurds in the employ of the parallel state stoking anti-government riots during the ISIL siege of Kobane, a Kurdish town in northern Syria. In January, Erdoğan accused the Gülenists of collaborating with Mossad. “Reaksiyon” had beaten him to it by several months.

Blurring the line between fact and fiction even further, a number of the show’s characters have been modeled after actual people. Agabey, who plans the overthrow of the Ankara government while sipping tea and fondling his prayer beads, appears to be a stand-in for Fethullah Gülen. A state prosecutor exposed midway through the series as a U.S. puppet has been made to resemble Zekeriya Öz, the official who led the 2013 corruption probe and who was subsequently relieved of his post. Emrah, a sleazy hack at the beck and call of the parallel state, is the spitting image of Emre Uslu, a reporter accused by the pro-AKP press of leaking government secrets through his Twitter handle.

The effect can be disorienting. “For some people,” said "Reaksiyon's" director, Onur Tan, “watching the show is like watching the news.”

Tan’s own politics are far from the AKP’s, but he appears to have his hands tied. “In theory, we could do a series on corruption in government,” he said. “But no mainstream channel would run it.”

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