Making Political Dramas for TV in Turkey Is a Dangerous Business

Dec 15, 2014 at 4:57 PM ET

Turkey’s entertainment industry has a knack for producing soap operas that people like to watch. The country exports its TV dramas—kitschy love stories with low production values—to around 70 countries and takes in revenues of about $130 million a year.

But the Turkish government is involved in a real-life soap opera—starring some of the country’s best-known media personalities—that’s way better than anything to come out of its TV studios.

Police on Sunday arrested more than two dozen people, including senior journalists, media executives and police officers, and accused them of being members of an armed terrorist organization. But this wasn’t your typical media crackdown in a country run by a strongman ruler.

The arrests are part of a long-running battle between Turkey’s brash president, Tayyip Erdogan, and a Turkish preacher named Fethullah Gülen who now lives in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania. The feud between Erdogan and Gülen, once political allies, is nominally over their varying interpretations of Islam, but it’s really over power. Gülen is the leader of Turkey’s largest religious movement, and that makes him a political threat to Erdogan.

In the best soap operas, old grudges are never forgotten, and both Erdogan and Gülen are well-aware that this week is the anniversary of the police raids last year that led to the arrests of cabinet ministers’ sons, prominent businessmen and others with close ties to the government. The raids were initiated by Gülen’s supporters in the police and judiciary. More than 30 people were detained as part of that sweep, and were accused of corruption, smuggling and bribery. As payback, Erdogan’s government has since dismissed or reassigned thousands of police officers and judicial officials who played a part in the raids.

The anniversary may well be why Erdogan is so keen to show his strength against the Gülenist movement this week—and why, after campaigning for months against Gülenist infiltration into the police force and the judiciary, he has turned up the heat on the Gülenist media wing, which includes three daily newspapers and several TV channels owned and run by Gülen supporters.

Sunday’s raid included the arrests of the editor-in-chief of the country’s top-selling daily paper, Zaman, and the head of Samanyolu Broadcast Group. Also arrested were producers, directors and scriptwriters of several political soap operas that Samanyolu broadcasts. The government was apparently upset by the story lines of a few of the broadcasts—and believes that Gülen is using the shows to defame real-life entities. It claims that in the series Tek Türkiye (Only Turkey), a religious sect that is a real-life rival of Gülen’s, called Tahsiye Group, was portrayed as a terrorist organization—on Gülen’s orders.

Erdogan was also angered by another series on the same channel, a show called Sefkat Tepesi (Hill of Compassion) in which the prophet Muhammad was shown as an beam of light on a truck. Erdogan had declared that the broadcast was sacrilegious; its director was among those arrested in Sunday’s raid.

Police released some of the screenwriters and directors Sunday night and Monday morning after they were interrogated by the prosecutor. Naci Celik Berksoy, the director of the Tek Türkiye series, told the local press after his release that he had been asked whether Gülen dictated the scenario about a terrorist group.

In fact, government sources say Gülen is consulted about almost all stories and shows produced by media companies sympathetic to his movement.

Berksoy denied the charges. “I don’t think this ever happened before in Turkish history: I mean, there has always been censorship, but I think this is the first time there have been arrests [for works of fiction].”

It looks like this soap opera, like most of them, could be a long-running one.