Cablegate: Combating Misinformation - the Case of "Yeni Safak"

Published: Tue 23 Dec 2003 03:10 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. On October 22, "Yeni Safak," an Islamist-oriented Turkish
daily close to the AKP Government, ran a story claiming that
U.S. forces in Iraq had raped "at least 4,000" Iraqi women
since the end of the war. The misinformation was based on a
distortion of an article written by Dr. Susan Block, a U.S.-
based sex therapist who runs a string of pornographic
websites. "Yeni Safak" identified their "source" by name
only, and the myth of an American mass rape campaign in Iraq
was born. For the past two months, the Embassy and
Consulate Istanbul have engaged in a multi-front campaign to
prevent the story from spreading and to embarrass the
editors of "Yeni Safak" to acknowledge their fabrication.
Following a December 15 commentary in Turkey's leading daily
"Hurriyet," which included extensive remarks by the
Ambassador regarding press responsibility in general and the
specific damage done by the rape story, "Yeni Safak" has
finally run up the white flag. The paper's representatives
in Ankara and Istanbul have told us they are "embarrassed"
by the "mistake" and two lengthy articles by "Yeni Safak"
columnists critical of the decision to publish the story
have appeared on the paper's ombudsman page. The reporter
who wrote the story has been forced to resign from the
paper. The incident demonstrates the power of deliberate
disinformation in the Turkish media environment and provides
lessons in how a concerted mission effort can achieve
progress in turning it around. End Summary.
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2. The editors and columnists at Islamist-oriented "Yeni
Safak" have long been skeptical of U.S. motives in Iraq and
consistently criticized U.S. policy in Iraq and the region.
Despite the paper's anti-U.S. editorial slant, however, the
October 22 "news" story in "Yeni Safak" claiming that U.S.
forces in Iraq had raped more than 4,000 Iraqi women was
shocking. Erroneous and exaggerated reporting is common in
the Turkish press, both secular and Islamist, but the scale
of the lie and the effect it could have on the paper's
conservative readers made the report particularly egregious.
The report cited a single source for its allegations - an
American named Dr. Susan Block. Several minutes of internet
research revealed that Dr. Block is in fact a "sex
therapist" who also runs a string of pornographic websites.
Armed with that information, the Embassy issued an immediate
press release denouncing the disinformation and condemning
the use of a clearly unreliable source to disseminate such a
damaging claim. We also contacted Mustafa Karaalioglu, the
paper's Ankara representative, to express our outrage.
Karaalioglu said he agreed that the report "hurt the
credibility" of "Yeni Safak," and promised to pass our
complaint and his own disappointment with the story to his
editors in Istanbul.
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3. The editors either didn't get the message, or they chose
to ignore it. On November 19, four days after two terrorist
suicide bombers killed more than 25 people in attacks
against two Istanbul synagogues, "Yeni Safak" ran a front-
page story claiming the bombings were the work of an Egypt-
based organization which is "known to have worked on behalf
of the CIA and MOSSAD in the past." Once again, we
expressed our outrage to Karaalioglu, who repeated his
frustration with the paper's management in Istanbul.
Embassy Public Affairs Counselor contacted the MFA
Spokesman, who promised to pass a message to the Foreign
Minister (then traveling in Sweden) that such fabrications
do enormous harm to the Turkish-U.S. relationship and to
Turkey's own reputation as a modern, Western-oriented
democracy. The DCM reinforced these points with an advisor
to the Foreign Minister, pointing out that these reports,
coming from a paper perceived to be friendly to the GOT,
undercut the ability of the Government to pursue its policy
objectives, especially in the war on terrorism.
4. Despite these warnings, "Yeni Safak" continued to spew
out more lies. On December 3, the paper ran yet another
story of an alleged rape campaign by U.S. troops in Iraq.
"Yeni Safak" claimed that a well-publicized clash between
U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents in the town of Samarra
began after the local population rioted to protest the
kidnapping and rape of the town's virgins. The story
further claimed that all 54 persons allegedly killed in the
battle were civilians.
5. The day after the Samarra report, Congen Istanbul PAO met
with the editor-in-chief of "Yeni Safak," Selahattin
Sadikoglu. While not appearing to give ground on the
substance of the reports or the decision to publish them,
Sadikoglu said he was eager to establish a dialogue with the
Consulate. The following day, an article criticizing the
decision to publish the "poorly-sourced" story on the
Samarra incident appeared on the daily ombudsman page in
"Yeni Safak." Remarkably, the article was signed by two of
the paper's own writers, including one of its most prominent
columnists. (Comment: the ombudsman page generally includes
letters from the public on a specific issue or criticism of
false or misleading media reports in other Turkish papers.
We had never before seen "Yeni Safak" turn the gun on
itself. End Comment.)
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6. On December 5, the popular Turkish daily "Milliyet" ran a
front-page interview with the family of Ilyas Kuncak,
suicide bomber in the November 20 attack against the HSBC
center in Istanbul. During the interview, two of Kuncak's
teenage children tried to justify their father's action as
his response to "the rape of Iraqi women by U.S. forces in
Iraq." Kuncak's son suggested that the rape reports were at
least part of the motivation for his father's action. In a
December 10 on-the-record session with the Ankara print
media (which included "Yeni Safak") the Ambassador
explicitly linked the fabricated reports to the "Milliyet"
interview. Although he did not specifically name "Yeni
Safak," the Ambassador did describe it as "odd" that a
"conservative" newspaper would use such a source for its
news on Iraq. Pointing out the "real consequences" of
irresponsible press reporting, the Ambassador made an
impassioned plea for editors to check their sources
thoroughly before going to press, particularly with stories
that may incite people to violence.
7. Although the Ambassador's comments on press
responsibility did not appear in the initial accounts of his
press session, the influential "Hurriyet" columnist Sedat
Ergin ran the comments in a separate story on December 15.
Ergin named "Yeni Safak" directly and, using the
Ambassador's remarks, forcefully condemned the paper's
editorial judgment and ridiculed its source for the rape
report. On the morning that Ergin's article appeared in
"Hurriyet," the Embassy and Congen Istanbul were approached
separately by "Yeni Safak" representatives, both of whom
expressed extreme regret for the incident. They said the
paper was "embarrassed" by the "mistakes" that had been made
in publishing the rape stories. Karaalioglu, the Ankara
rep, said the original rape report had been written by an
"inexperienced" reporter who didn't look carefully at his
source. He acknowledged that "Yeni Safak" editors had been
"negligent" in not questioning the report, and expressed
alarm at what the entire episode - especially the "Hurriyet"
column - might do to the paper's credibility. We have been
told that the reporter who wrote the initial phony rape
story has now resigned from the paper.
8. In an interesting footnote, Dr. Susan Block, the American
"sex therapist" who was cited as the source of the rape
claim, contacted the Embassy from the United States on
December 19 to complain that she had never said or written
that U.S. forces had raped Iraqi women. Dr. Block noted,
correctly, that her article, titled "The Rape of Iraq," was
an effort to use rape as a metaphor for the Iraq war. We
assured Dr. Block that the Embassy effort to kill this false
story was never intended to target her. Any negative
feedback she may have received as the result of the story,
we pointed out, was purely the responsibility of "Yeni
9. It remains to be seen whether the negative fallout for
"Yeni Safak" from this episode will have any impact on the
paper's willingness to distort the truth. A relationship
has been established with the editor-in-chief, and in
response to two invitations to cover Consulate Istanbul
events, the paper has published articles that are
uncharacteristically favorable toward the U.S. Although the
positive may not last, we believe that our effort to
discredit these lies has put the Turkish press on notice
that the Mission is watching what they publish and is not
afraid to challenge them, or even to embarrass them publicly
when they cross the line. Several journalists from other
newspapers have approached us privately to express support
for our aggressive response. They understand that such
blatant fabrications discredit the entire Turkish press, not
just the papers that publish them. They also recognize
another fundamental reality of the Turkish media environment
- that a story, no matter how ludicrous or farfetched it may
appear, will be believed by many Turks if it goes
unchallenged. End Comment.
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