Turkish television anchor Ahmet Keser was charged with inciting hatred on Wednesday over comments defending Turkey’s Syria operation. He said if the Turkish military had wanted to kill civilians, it would have started with staunchly-secular areas in Istanbul.
The comments by Mr. Keser, an anchor on the pro-government Akit TV, sparked outrage among both opposition critics and ruling party officials, while Istanbul prosecutors moved quickly to charge him.
Mr. Keser, a presenter on breakfast TV, made the comments while rejecting claims civilians had been killed in Turkey’s operation against Kurdish militia in Syria.
Asking why the Turkish army would target civilians, he said: “If we were going to kill civilians, then we would start with Cihangir, Nisantasi and Etiler, there are plenty of traitors there.And there’s also the Turkish parliament.”
Cihangir, Nisantasi and Etiler are three upscale neighbourhoods in Istanbul where residents are predominantly secular, hostile to the government and enjoy a European lifestyle with coffee shops and bars.
Istanbul prosecutors charged him with inciting hatred and hostility, state media said. If convicted, he could face a jail sentence of between 18 months and four-and-a-half years.
‘Sabotaging National Unity’
Speaking to Turkey’s NTV channel, Mahir Unal, spokesman for ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), described Mr. Keser’s remarks as an “open provocation” which would damage national unity.
“Who are you? We are not going to agree or approve of this.It’s a stupid sabotage of Turkey’s unity,” he said.
In response, Akit TV issued a statement saying it did not approve of Mr. Keser’s comments and that he had resigned to avoid any “pretext” for public criticism of the channel.
Eren Erdem, the Istanbul MP for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) who lodged the original complaint, praised prosecutors for opening an investigation.
“I hope the investigation is completed quickly and the necessary punishment is given,” he said.
‘Ready to Be a Martyr’
The controversy erupted as Turkey presses a military campaign in northern Syria aimed at dislodging a Kurdish militia deemed by Ankara to be terrorists.
With the campaign now in its second month, the authorities have made clear that public criticism of its aims amounts to treachery, arresting 845 people for protesting or “spreading propaganda” about it.
So far, 33 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the offensive, all hailed by media and officials as “martyrs” for Islam. But it has raised tensions in Turkey’s increasingly-polarised society ahead of 2019 elections, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspiring devotion and opposition in equal measure.
In a weekend speech in the eastern Kahramanmaras region, Mr. Erdogan raised eyebrows by inviting a young girl dressed in military uniform on stage and evoking the idea she could become a “martyr.”
“I hope that if you become a martyr they will drape you with the Turkish flag. Be ready for anything” said Mr. Erdogan.
“Yes,” replied the little girl, who was weeping.
The gesture drew sharp criticism on social media, with some users saying the girl, reportedly just 6, was clearly in distress and asking if Mr. Erdogan would be ready to send his own children to the front.
Despite widespread media coverage, the stunt stoked little political debate in a country where the issue of military martyrs hugely sensitive, particularly during the Syria campaign.