In his moment of need, Erdogan finds a use for a TV network he distrusts: Nahlah Ayed

Without CNN Turk, embattled Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's message would have been denied the audience necessary to bring thousands of people onto the streets to defend his rule.

No shortage of ironies in the role of media, old and new, in failed coup attempt

CNN Turk kept broadcasting during an attempted coup in Turkey. (Derek Stoffel/CBC )

If the medium, in this day and age, is still the message, then FaceTime must step aside for a moment and show deference to plain old television.

Much has been made of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's now-famous FaceTime call encouraging his people to resist the rogue soldiers who'd embarked Friday night on an ill-fated attempt at a coup.

But without CNN Turk, which aired Erdogan's iPhone-to-iPhone video call, his message would have been denied the audience necessary to bring thousands of people onto the streets to defend his rule.

The delectable irony of course is that there is no love lost between the increasingly authoritarian president and the private network that may have won him this war — it was under investigation earlier this year for  "insulting" the president, after describing Erdogan as a "dictator" on its news ticker.

And yet not only did he FaceTime them in his hour of greatest need — giving him the first opportunity that night to say something to try to save his presidency — but their subsequent, dramatic hours of broadcasting may have helped clinch the push-back against the coup.

No shortage of ironies

There was no shortage of ironies inside a coup attempt that, for a rare moment, made friends of Erdogan's foes and seemed to bring his supporters and critics together.

"Some of the people whom he blamed for being conspiratorial powers against him actually stood with him," said Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish author and writer.

Mustafa Akyol, an author and writer for New York Times and (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"CNN Turk, which actually Erdogan hated … they stood with Erdogan and helped him overcome the coup."

It was a coup that also seemingly relied heavily on last-century's strategy while leaving the more powerful private, and new media, literally, to their own devices.

For one, the coup planners initially focused their attention on state television, where they forced an anchor to read a statement about their intentions.

It is not a widely watched network here.

But they also seemed to be entirely ignorant of the power of social media and the means with which to shut them down — again, the irony — a practice which Erdogan's administration has nearly perfected.

And yet there was Erdogan, harnessing the power of that new technology, and a network he distrusts, to get his message across.

It was almost certain his appearance on CNN Turk that put the network in the crosshairs of the putschists, and soon, a helicopter landed with eight soldiers in fatigues, carrying rifles and pushing their way through the network's lobby, demanding it be taken off the air.

Secret broadcast

Erdogan Aktas, CNN Turk General Manager, who kept the network on the air despite the soldiers who appeared to try to shut it down during an attempted coup in Turkey. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

General Manager Erdogan Aktas sent some of his staff away, including the anchor, but he refused to leave.

He told the soldiers it was impossible to take the network off the air, and so one camera kept rolling in the empty studio.

He then secretly put on a microphone so that the audience could follow what unfolded next inside his newsroom, and with his voice, he occasionally walked them through some of what happened.

In his first interview on the events of that night, he told CBC News he had to act.

"It's a reflex. There's someone coming to destroy democracy in Turkey, and as a human, as a democrat, you will keep broadcasting," he said.

"Can you tell me, if I had surrendered the studio to the soldiers, how I can look at my children's faces?"

Psychological advantage

Government supporters wave Turkish flags during a protest in Taksim Square, in Istanbul on Monday. The country's Interior Ministry has fired nearly 9,000 police officers, bureaucrats and others and detained thousands of suspected plotters following the foiled coup, Turkey's state-run news agency reported Monday. (Associated Press)

In the course of the "broadcast," those watching heard the scuffles that eventually took place between police and the soldiers, and the gunshot that rang just outside the studio, leaving a prominent bullet hole in the glass up in the roof.

In the meantime thousands of people were answering Erdogan's call, flooding to airports, public squares—and also to CNN Turk, to foil the coup attempt.

Aktas says all of it contributed to its failure.

"To stop the military coup, two things were very important," he said. "Erdogan's Facetime speech on CNN Turk, and…that the soldiers failed to provide psychological advantage because we didn't let them stop our broadcasting."

Now that the coup attempt is contained, the next irony is that the ensuing purge could result in further curbing freedoms in a country already chafing against increasing restrictions.

Women buy corn at a street stall in central Istanbul on Monday. Warplanes patrolled Turkey's skies days after a failed coup, officials said Monday, in a sign that authorities feared that the threat against the government was not yet over. (Associated Press)

Activists are reporting that several websites have been shut down while academics and journalists are concerned they too will be targeted in the wide-sweeping purge.

While the government fears another coup attempt, "the other threat … [is] a state in which criticizing the government becomes evidence of your treason," says Akyol.

"There was already that narrative. Now it is more and more certain …. So that's worrying."

Indeed, the message now from the government seems to be you're either with us or against us—that there is no room for criticizing its tough measures to quash and punish those behind the coup plot.

There was an anti-coup consensus, that first night when Erdogan appeared via Facetime on CNN Turk. That could have been "the basis of a national reconciliation," in a country more divided than ever now on its president and what democracy should look like.

"That looks like a distant dream right now," said Akyol. "But I think that's the right dream."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.