Freedom of the press

Turkey's Pelican group – Erdoganʹs state within a state?

After Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government set its sights on critical news outlet OdaTV, several of its journalists now face harsh prison sentences. Is Turkey's president using a secret group to control judges? By Hulya Schenk & Daniel Derya Bellut

It was one of those moments that once again showed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's seemingly limitless power. Two weeks ago, he was on a return flight from a state visit to Azerbaijan, accompanied representatives of the pro-government press, who asked him sympathetic questions.

One journalist criticised that OdaTV had not yet been charged, saying the media portal was after all one of the key initiators of the "coup attempt". What was meant were the Gezi protests in 2013, in which large parts of civil society demonstrated against the government. OdaTV is said to have described the actions of the state and the police relating to the unrest as "murderous".

Erdogan thanked the journalist for his assessment and said he would take care of it. "The ball is now in the court of justice," he said. A week later, the Turkish judiciary initiated investigations into OdaTV employees. Police arrested Editor-in-Chief Baris Pehlivan, news chief Baris Terkoglu and editor Hulya Kilinc. Access to the website was blocked.

The media outlet was charged with having reported about a Turkish intelligence officer who died in the war in Libya, and of having "revealed information and documents related to intelligence activities". This information, however, had previously been released by a member of the opposition Iyi party at a press conference in parliament. The Constitutional Court had ruled in a landmark decision in 2016 that information is not subject to secrecy if it was previously known to the public.

Pelican – ongoing suspicions for years

Protests in Gezi Park in the summer of 2013 (photo: Osman Kavala)
Denounced by pro-system media: one journalist criticised that OdaTV had not yet been charged, saying the media portal was after all one of the key initiators of the "coup attempt". What was meant were the Gezi protests in 2013, in which large parts of civil society demonstrated against the government

For many observers and social media users, this speedy move was further proof that a secret group close to Erdogan has infiltrated the judiciary. Suspicions have been growing for years that a faction known as the Pelican group is gaining increasing influence in Turkey and effectively operating as a state within the state. The name refers to "The Pelican Brief", a 1992 legal thriller novel by John Grisham that was later turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts.

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