By Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu
ANKARA (Reuters) – Allegations of wrongdoing by Turkey’s political and financial leaders have transfixed the country this week, but with some newspapers focusing instead on courtroom conspiracies and clothes, many Turks have been left hungry for news.
“Casual chic on the 2nd day”, read HaberTurk newspaper’s front page story after main witness Reza Zarrab told a New York court that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan authorized a transaction in a scheme to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions.
“On the second day of the trial, Reza Zarrab was not wearing a prison uniform and was casual chic in his white shirt and dark blazer,” HaberTurk said.
Like other publications, HaberTurk stepped nimbly around the substantive issues. Erdogan has presided over a crackdown in areas from judiciary to media since a failed coup last year with a number of journalists jailed. He has also frequently taken court action against those he deems have insulted him.
Zarrab is cooperating with U.S. prosecutors in the criminal trial of a Turkish bank executive accused of helping to launder money for Iran. The executive has pleaded not guilty.
Erdogan, who has governed Turkey for almost 15 years, has not yet responded to courtroom claims; but had already dismissed the case as a politically inspired attempt to bring down the Turkish government.
He says the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankara for the failed military coup and known by Turkish authorities as FETO, was also behind the court case.
The pro-government daily Star branded the case “American Theater” on its front page. “Zarrab plot trial is a political show staged by FETO together with judges, prosecutors and experts who are all Neo-cons and enemies of Turkey.”
The limited or skeptical coverage of the case has encouraged curious Turks to take to Twitter, where hashtags such as #Zarrabcase and #Zarrabkonusuyor (Zarrab is speaking) became top trending topics late on Wednesday and Thursday.
Since the trial started this week there have been hundreds of thousands of tweets, retweets and replies with Zarrab-related hashtags on Twitter.
“You can’t see it on televisions or newspapers here. They either cut feeds or don’t mention it,” said Oguzcan Gundogmus, a 24-year-old PhD student, as he sipped tea in central Ankara.
The court case has reverberated on the streets. “Spill the beans, my son!” one elderly protester urged Zarrab at a women’s demonstration in Istanbul last weekend.
But most of the focus has been online. Followers of journalists tweeting from inside the courtroom surged over the past two days, more than 20-fold in some cases. One court reporter’s tweets are being simultaneously translated into Turkish and followed by 10,000 people so far.
Zarrab said in court he bribed several officials in Turkey as part of his scheme.
“I am surprised the government hasn’t still banned Twitter. Me and my friends stay up at nights and follow the case there, we even make popcorn like it’s a movie night, and we call the case “Lord of the Bribes,” said Mehmet Baglar, a 34-year-old engineer.
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Ralph Boulton)