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.

Alican Uludag, a journalist with Turkey's opposition Cumhuriyet daily, has no doubt that the group exists. His research has shown that the Pelican group pulled the strings during the arrests and censorship surrounding OdaTV, he said. "Journalists working for Pelican have publicly welcomed and supported the arrests, and OdaTV has for years been reporting on the re-structuring of the Turkish justice system initiated by Pelican."

Uludag said he assumes a network of Pelican members has infiltrated the judiciary, adding that Erdogan's lawyers personally told him as much. "Apart from political influence, little is known about the group's financial flows. If this aspect is uncovered, it is likely a major criminal organisation will emerge," the journalist believes.

Reminiscent of Gulen movement

Along with 44 fellow lawyers, Istanbul Bar Association President Mehmet Durakoglu protested against the arrest of OdaTV journalists and signed a joint declaration against political meddling. The lawyer was cautious about the alleged influence of the Pelican group, however, saying he could not confirm its existence. There is obviously some kind of power struggle between different groups going on within the judiciary, only a blind man would not see that, he said, but declined to name names.

Journalist Alican Uludag (photo: private)
Journalist Alican Uludag, from the opposition Cumhuriyet daily, believes that the Pelican group pulled the strings during the arrests and censorship surrounding OdaTV, he said. "Journalists working for Pelican have publicly welcomed and supported the arrests, and OdaTV has for years been reporting on the re-structuring of the Turkish justice system initiated by Pelican"

Should it transpire that Pelican does indeed exist, this would cause similar problems for the independence of the judiciary as the influence of the Gulen movement did previously.

The religious group, led by Fethullah Gulen, was once very close to the Turkish government and judiciary, in particular to the president.

Today, Gulen and Erdogan are embittered opponents, and Turkey lists the movement as a terrorist organisation. "There was an outcry back then," said Durakoglu, adding it is necessary to point out, once again, the same danger.

Back in mid-February, the Turkish public was already speculating about Pelican influence in the Kavala case. The entrepreneur and patron of culture Osman Kavala was accused of having been an organiser of the Gezi Park protests in 2013. After years in custody, he was surprisingly acquitted in February due to lack of evidence.

Back in mid-February, the Turkish public was already speculating about Pelican influence in the Kavala case. The entrepreneur and patron of culture Osman Kavala was accused of having been an organiser of the Gezi Park protests in 2013. After years in custody, he was surprisingly acquitted in February due to lack of evidence.

Shortly afterwards, a new arrest warrant was issued, accusing Kavala of being behind the attempted coup d'etat in July 2016. According to a widespread rumour, the Pelican group allegedly put pressure on the Istanbul public prosecutor's office to keep Kavala in prison.

Links to a party and a think tank

The Pelican group is a wing of the ruling AKP Islamic-conservative party, led for the most part by Erdogan's son-in-law, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, said Alican Uludag, adding that the group is preparing for Erdogan's successor and is particularly influential within the country's judiciary.

Firat Erez, a journalist and former member of the Istanbul-based Bosphorus Global think tank — regarded as the Turkish government's propaganda tool — once belonged to the Pelican group. The group met regularly with the Turkish president, he said. The group's luxurious headquarters, an Ottoman mansion on the Bosphorus, and the employees' salaries were financed by a private hospital run by Erdogan's close confidant, personal physician and health minister, Fahrettin Koca, according to Erez.

Solidarity with Osman Kavala – poster at a press conference given by his lawyers in October 2018 (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Solidarity with Osman Kavala: some three weeks after his acquittal and re-arrest, a new arrest warrant was issued against the Turkish intellectual Osman Kavala. The reason: an accusation of "political and military espionage" in connection with the attempted coup in 2016 that Kavala denies. In a statement, he made the Turkish president personally responsible for his re-arrest

The Pelican group is Erdogan's troll army, Erez said, offering an insight into its perfidious media strategy: the group tries to slander political opponents on social networks and spread disinformation. "Trolls besiege them with unfounded accusations and threats." It is a complex strategy used against powerful enemies, Erez told the Turkish newspaper Ahval.

Pelican targets Erdogan's rivals

The most prominent victim of such a slander campaign is said to be the former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In 2016, the group published a dossier on a public blog, known as the "Pelican File", which listed 27 points intended to prove Davutoglu's alleged betrayal of the "leader" Erdogan. The dossier incited large sections of the Turkish population to rise up against the prime minister to such an extent that he had to resign.

The Pelikan group is also alleged to have tried to manipulate the local elections in Istanbul on 31 March 2019 in order to prevent opposition politician Ekrem Imamoglu of the Social Democratic Party (CHP) from winning the elections. The group allegedly spread rumours on social networks that the CHP candidate had stolen votes and instigated a "coup at the ballot box".

So how far does the influence of the Pelican Group go? Is it Erdogan's troll army or Erdogan's shadow justice, or both? There are many rumours about the group. What is clear, however, is that the widespread speculation is a sign of the deep mistrust large sections of the population feel towards the Turkish state and its decision-makers.

Hulya Schenk & Daniel Derya Bellut

© Deutsche Welle 2020

More on this topic