In new Turkey, even celebrities are politicised

Celebrities giving support to authoritarian regimes is nothing unusual and Turkish celebrities were never shy in demonstrating allegiance to those in power.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has always surrounded himself with celebrities and this circle has expanded over the years as his rule became stronger. He has created new stars who are more appealing to his base, nominated celebrities as candidates in elections, and has also managed to convert some from the opposition secularists.

In Turkey, the entertainment industry has never been economically independent from political power, but today this is almost impossible. There are many young actors playing in Turkish television series and sometimes becoming internationally famous, but they are dependent on television channels controlled by the government. Many musicians also need to take part in concerts organised by municipalities during local festivals to make a living. 

More importantly, Turkish celebrities, like all celebrities in the world, need the media to promote themselves, and today in Turkey it means to appear in newspapers and on television channels that are either controlled by or affiliated to Erdoğan.

This situation has created a mostly silent opposition. Celebrities sometimes chose to raise their voices using social media, but usually avoided being too critical when talking to mainstream media outlets. And, despite Erdoğan’s increasing influence on the industry, celebrities and their views were largely confined to the celebrity pages. That was until this year. 

Then came Tuba Kalçık, a reporter for Turkey’s pro-government Sabah newspaper, who has now become famous due to her interviews with celebrities. She can be labelled the pioneer of politicised celebrity news. 

Kalçık has an exceptional talent. She targets people who are considered to be celebrities opposing Erdoğan government, or who are at least known to be critical of it. Her interviews, if you read them from the beginning until the end, are mostly business as usual; people talk about their albums, movies, theatre plays, etc.

But there is always a political part to the discourse, sometimes a paragraph, sometimes a single sentence, and those are the comments Kalçık and her editors use in their headlines.

Each interview carried out by Kalçık creates an uproar among the Turkish opposition on social media, with many denouncing the celebrity who gives the interview. She is so effective in using those interviews for furthering the already deep polarisation in Turkey that even the person being interviewed tries to correct his/her words afterwards or state that they were taken out of context, nobody hears or believes these pleas.

It is simple; each interview by Kalçık with a celebrity critic of Erdoğan means another point won by the president and another lost for the opposition. Maybe, a few examples can make this clearer.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2nd R), his wife Emine Erdogan (2nd L), Turkish trans celebrity and actress Bulent Ersoy (L) and Turkish singer Sibel Can (R) attending a ramandan dinner in Istanbul in 2016.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2nd R), his wife Emine Erdogan (2nd L), Turkish trans celebrity and actress Bulent Ersoy (L) and Turkish singer Sibel Can (R) attending a ramandan dinner in Istanbul in 2016. AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / KAYHAN OZER

In July, Kalçık interviewed Turkey’s renowned author, Ahmet Ümit, who comes from a leftist background. Ümit, at some part of the interview, said that the opposition in Turkey was not balanced, that they chose to criticise Erdoğan no matter what and failed to appreciate the positive policies of the government. His interview was promoted with the headline: “We are all in the same boat.”

In another interview, musician Derya Köroğlu, whose band Yeni Türkü is known for its leftists songs produced following the 1980 coup, accused the Turkish left of being deaf to society’s demands. Köroğlu later denied he uttered those words. Kalçık, in response, then chose another headline and story to condemn the musician, using the name of his famous song: “The masquerade has ended”.

In September, Hasan Saltık, the owner of a Turkish music company known for its support for culturally diverse and under-represented musical figures, talked to Kalçık. He accused the main opposition Republican People’s Part of lacking the skilled manpower needed to run the country. 

Last month, Kalçık published an interview with actor Erdal Beşikçioğlu, whose television series Behzat Ç. was once the symbol of the Turkish opposition. Beşikçioğlu told Kalçık that he kept his savings in Turkish lira, which has lost almost one third of its value against the dollar this year. “I never converted them to dollars, I have never thought about it,” he said. For many, that meant the actor followed Erdoğan’s instructions to keep savings in Turkish lira to counter foreign economic attacks.

This week, Kalçık’s interviewee was Tunç Başaran, known for his 1989 film ‘Uçurtmayı Vurmasınlar [Don’t Let Them Shoot the Kite]’ narrating the story of a young boy staying with his mother in prison, which for many is one of the most political films of its time. 

“The art does not have a political purpose and it should not,” said the director. “‘Uçurtmayı Vurmasınlar’ is a film on love. Those were my emotions during filming it. It is not a political film despite what people think. I chose the prison only as a space. I could have made the same film in a train station,” he said.

In the last couple of months, other newspapers have started following Kalçık’s methods and have published similar interviews. Some now call them ‘we are in the same boat’ interviews’. Many Turks react to each and every one of them, saying “we are not in the same boat”. For others, the uproar provides further ammunition to spread the feeling among Erdoğan supporters that “the others do not want to be in the same boat” as us. For the pessimists in Turkey, the boat has already sunk into the sea.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.