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Mafia boss bites Erdogan, but will Turkey's president bite back?

Silencing digital-minded dissidents the old-fashioned way

| Turkey
A tablet shows the video of Sedat Peker on June 6: his scandal-ridden monologues have a viral effect.   © AP

Andrew North is a journalist based in Tbilisi and a regular commentator on Asian affairs. He has reported widely from South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East.

If you have missed the story of the Turkish mafia boss turned YouTube whistleblower alleging that President Tayyip Recep Erdogan presides over a deep state of crime involved in everything from drug trafficking to arming Islamic militants and covering up murder, one place you can catch up is through Saudi Arabia's media.

Not usually so concerned with crime and politics inside the Ankara and Istanbul beltways, Saudi online sites have been giving notably generous coverage to fugitive Turkish gangland boss Sedat Peker and his tell-all videos.

Operating from what he says is Dubai, the 49-year-old Peker has been uploading his scandal-ridden monologues once a week like a TV miniseries. Turks have been binge-watching -- the videos have gained more than 100 million views so far -- with government-aligned Saudi outlets enjoying the spectacle.

"Most Turks were eagerly awaiting Sunday to watch the latest video and whistle-blowing claims from a notorious gangland figure who was close to the government until recently," read the intro to one of many recent pieces in the English-language Arab News.

It is not hard to understand why. It is payback time.

When the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside his own country's diplomatic mission in Istanbul three years ago, it was the Turkish government that blew apart the Saudi monarchy's attempts to cover up the killing and the involvement of its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The mercurial Erdogan gave the green light for his spooks to release the incriminating details they had scooped up from bugging the Saudi Consulate, to make bin Salman squirm.

But now the tables are turned and it's Erdogan and his ministers who are squirming -- with not only the Saudis watching how he reacts.

Tayyip Erdogan, pictured in Ankara on Mar. 24: now it is the Turkey's president who are squirming.   © Reuters

It is a case that highlights the extraordinary power modern-day whistleblowers and dissidents have to cause waves thanks to the internet. And that in turn has prompted an ever-more-aggressive response from authoritarian governments as they show they are prepared to cross borders to snuff them out, using old-fashioned methods such as kidnapping and assassination.

Newton's third law of motion could easily be rewritten for politics. You can tell how much impact a dissident is having by the scale and severity of the reaction.

There are examples everywhere. At least nine prominent critics of Thailand's military and monarchy have been abducted while in exile. That includes 38-year-old Wanchalerm Satsaksit, who was bundled into a car by armed men in Cambodia last June. He was on the phone to his sister at the time, and the last words she heard him say were: "Can't breathe." There has been no word of him since, and both the Thai and Cambodian authorities have stonewalled all inquiries.

Chinese dissidents also have a long track record of mysteriously disappearing.

Belarus in Eastern Europe recently forced down a foreign passenger plane to grab dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich. Last year, the Kremlin tried to kill Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny with a nerve agent. His slickly produced video reports, alleging rampant corruption under President Vladimir Putin, have had a viral effect, too -- garnering well over 100 million views and counting.

Navalny's survival and success in tricking one of the Kremlin's operatives into revealing the assassination plot before returning home has turned him into a one-name, global dissident celebrity -- making it that much harder for the Russian government to silence him. But it was telling that in a recent interview, Putin refused to guarantee that Navalny would survive his imprisonment.

So far, Turkish gang boss Peker is still releasing his videos. But he is being careful not to reveal too much about his location. Erdogan also has a long track record of sending his security services to snatch critics abroad -- especially those linked to the opposition Gulen movement, who the Turkish leader government accuses of fomenting a 2016 coup attempt.

In the latest case allegedly involving Turkey, a man who runs a network of schools linked to the Gulen movement in Kyrgyzstan has disappeared amid accusations that he is being held in the Turkish Embassy in the capital, Bishkek. Family and supporters have been demonstrating outside the embassy, demanding answers as to the whereabouts of Orhan Inandi, who was born in Turkey but is now a Kyrgyz citizen.

And after weeks of trying to ignore Peker, Erdogan finally spoke out late last month to warn that the crime boss would be found and brought back. "We will spoil these games, these plots," he said.

Erdogan is under pressure on many fronts right now -- with the economy wobbling and a new COVID-19 surge threatening to crater tourism revenues yet again, a crucial source of hard currency. Anxious to shore up his conservative, Islamist base, he recently ordered new restrictions on alcohol sales.

With a criminal past reportedly dating back to his teens, Peker is hardly a symbol of virtue, of course. But that is often the case with whistleblowers. They have an impact precisely because they were insiders who know, so to speak, where the bodies are buried. Peker is having an effect because so many other avenues for dissent in Erdogan's Turkey have been closed down.

You can tell a lot about a country from the way it treats its minorities. You can also tell a lot about how it handles whistleblowers and dissidents.

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