Rue Amelot

Why Turkey's Assault On Press Freedom Is Different This Time

Protest outside Cumhuriyet daily HQ in Instanbul on Oct. 31
Protest outside Cumhuriyet daily HQ in Instanbul on Oct. 31
Ozgur Ogret

When I told the guy at my neighborhood grocery store in the Turkish city of Istanbul that I was traveling abroad, he said, "Don't come back. Not if you can."

I told him I have a life here. "They will arrest us all, one day," he responded.

I'd never previously discussed politics with my grocer. He does not know that I'm a journalist. He's not politically active as far as I know. He's the guy who works the cash register in the store. One person among the tens of millions who feel like hostages in their own country.

After a failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, we've been under a state of emergency that includes a crackdown on press freedom. So what's new, you may ask. Chances are you've heard of media clampdowns in Turkey before. Journalists are routinely jailed, media outlets are shut down, prosecutors equate pens with guns, state officials compare books to bombs. The concept of due process itself is often a myth.

But this time the repression is different. It's larger in scope, deeper in severity, more definitive. Yes, previous crises were damaging too. But I promise that what comes next is not a "Turkey at a crossroads' cliché.

I have been a vocal critic of previous administrations in Turkey, which were largely controlled by the military. Today I'm glad that the military is no longer the deciding political force in the country and I'm even more pleased that this summer's coup attempt failed. What I'm now worried about is that the fate of Turkey is now tied to the political career of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

Even when Turkey did things by the book, I used to complain because it was a terrible book. Still, there was a book. Today, there is no guide for what happens next. The state is liberal when it is politically advantageous to make peace with the Kurds, and ultra-nationalist when it is not. Turkey may be the mortal enemy of country X today. Tomorrow, we become best friends with that same country. Rules and procedures are applied only when it's beneficial for the AKP to do so on a given day.

The failed coup and the state of emergency have enhanced the authority of Erdogan and offered a veneer of legitimacy to his fickle policies. In terms of press freedom, a crisis has now turned catastrophic. This is not just another free speech issue for Turkey. The current situation will destroy independent publications and will leave none intact to survive the next fight with the administration.

The government and its devoted media and trolls may twist facts about press freedom and imprisoned journalists as much as they like. But facts do not lie. You can't count with both hands the number of independent media outlets that remain on the national level today. Publications critical of the government have been shut down and their assets confiscated. This is a fact. Working at an unbiased publication is sufficient to be labeled a traitor and prosecuted as a terrorist. This is a fact. It is also a fact that supposedly independent Turkish judiciary consists of judges and prosecutors whose entire careers are at the mercy of the justice minister.

The government and its apologists can pick and choose facts to further their arguments. When they say that the journalists behind bars do not have official press credentials, it's partly true. The whole story is that those credentials, the "yellow press cards," are granted arbitrarily by the press desk of the prime minister's office, and only if the journalist is hired with a certain insurance that's too expensive for many newsrooms to afford. Fewer than 10% of active journalists in Turkey have them. Even at a pro-government newsroom in the country (except for maybe the capital), nine out of 10 people don't have these yellow cards. That's the whole truth. Turkey is now the world's leading jailer of journalists. That too is an undeniable fact.

As I've said before, Turkey is not at a crossroads. Turkey is on a one-way road to a one-party system, which is going to be glorified by an obedient media. Turkey is about to arrive at a place where not being affiliated with the ruling party will be considered a transgression, and where speaking outside the officially-approved script can be criminalized. All journalists who are not jailed or condemned to unemployment will only have one option left — to become PR agents for the government. Turkey is heading full-speed toward this dark new place, with no sign of detours anywhere along the road.


*Ozgur Ogret is a freelance journalist in Istanbul, the Turkey Representative for the CPJ and a regular Worldcrunch contributor.

This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, both original pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris we call home. Send ideas and suggestions to info@worldcrunch.com.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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