While Turkey’s AKP goes through a rough patch both in domestic and international politics, the major child abuse scandal around the pro-government Ensar foundation turns into a political vortex, also battering one of the most prestigious brands in the country: Turkcell.
Turkcell, the leading mobile operator and one of the most prestigious brands in Turkey with its commercial excellence and successful social responsibility projects, nowadays, finds itself at the core of a child abuse scandal around the pro-government Ensar foundation, which the company partnered in a major campaign.
Two reporters of the independent press, Serbay Mansuroğlu of BirGün newspaper and Mustafa Hoş of gazeteport.com revealed a massive child abuse scandal in Ensar Foundation’s Karaman branch. The scandal allegedly involved 45 children (ten of which were officially reported), abused by a volunteer teacher who frequently appeared at Ensar events, in a dormitory run by the local branch of Islamic clergy school alumni association, a partner of Ensar.
As these allegations unravel, Turkcell, known to be one of the biggest sponsors of Ensar events (along with Turkish Airlines), has been invited by hundreds of Twitter users to denounce any further sponsorship deals with the foundation. However, the firm published a bleak press announcement saying “we will continue to support our youth” which incited further outrage among Twitter users and a massive subscription cancellation campaign.
In order to deal with the negative reaction, Turkcell opted for two court motions to ban access to 862 tweets, which led to two hashtags #TecavüzCell (RapeCell) and #SansürCell (CensorshipCell) trending on Twitter. But how (and why) did Turkcell end up in such a monumental PR disaster, instead of just cutting its ties with Ensar and coming clean in the eyes of millions of clients?
The Rise and Fall of Turkcell
Turkcell, the leading GSM operator in Turkey, is one of the main staples of Turkish industry. Having first begun operation in 1994, this company has endured as one of the most popular brands in the country since then. The almost complete domination of Turkcell over the mobile communication market has been sustained by Turkcell’s modernity; a brand image that has portrayed the organization as the herald of a more modern, cultured, younger country, in line with the steps taken towards Turkey’s membership to the European Union.
Turkcell’s now legendary “Free Girl” campaign in 2001, which introduced Boğaziçi graduate – singer Nil Karaibrahimgil – as a new pop icon, symbolized pretty much everything that Turkey claimed to represent during this era. Turkcell also made a name among high culture circles, by sponsoring almost every major cultural event in the country. Their joint “Snowdrops” campaign, run alongside the secular Association in Support of Contemporary Living, aimed at providing equal opportunities in education for underprivileged girls in rural areas and was held up as another beacon of Turkey’s modernizing character, and also represents of the most successful corporate social responsibility campaigns in Turkish history.
Meanwhile, Turkcell’s major stake-holder, Çukurova Holding, owned by Mehmet Emin Karamehmet, gradually began to have problems with the AKP government, on top of his already faltering financial state to due to his Pamukbank being confiscated during the 2001 economic crisis, before AKP came to power. Karamehmet was set on a deeply rooted path, followed by other business moguls with media incentives: namely Dinç Bilgin, Turgay Ciner, Cem Uzan and Aydın Doğan.
Karamehmet, struggling against the rising inner-circle oligopoly of AKP, had to sell a large portion of his stakes to Swedish-Finnish telecommunications company TeliaSonera in 2005. Over the next ten years, TeliaSonera’s stakes in Turkcell varied from between 37-48 percent (currently 38%). Russian Alfa Group also held a 13 percent share, which later proved to be extremely problematic as Karamehmet’s conflict with both partners resulted in the Turkcell General Assembly being un-able to convene since 2011.
This conflict has proved critical in Turkcell’s fate as Turkey’s Capital Markets Board (SPK) announced in 2013 that it could assign board members to Turkcell in order to protect minority shareholders’ interests in this publicly traded corporation. This intervention was preceded by an omnibus bill in the parliament allowing such a move. Accordingly, the SPK appointed Ahmet Akça, an Islamic clergy school graduate, along with former AKP ministers Atilla Koç and Hilmi Güler as independent board members in March 2013.
As the conflict among major shareholders resumed, the terms of non-AKP members of the board expired, and SPK subsequently appointed two more board members; state-run Vakıf Retirement’s CEO Mehmet Bostan and AKP İzmir Branch Vice President Bekir Pakdemirli. Another important development was Turkcell CEO Süreyya Ciliv’s resignation in January 2015.
After Ciliv’s resignation, Turkcell’s public relations activities took a major turn. The company began a major partnership with the Ensar Foundation, the pro-AKP entity founded by Islamic clergy school graduates and sponsored by the Erdoğan family. This foundation received major financial support from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Youth and Sports. One of Ensar Foundation’s biggest projects is the “Turkey Value Awards” which promotes Islamic values in schools. Turkcell subsequently became the main sponsor of this project. In May 2015, the final event of this project was held with the participation of Ahmet Akça, the Chairman of the Turkcell board.
Will the Ensar Scandal take Turkcell Down?
While the Ensar scandal burned AKP red hot under Turkey’s own “Spotlight” powered by a bunch of independent journalists and thousands of dissident Twitter users; the government, with their close ties to the foundation, swiftly developed a strict defence strategy against any accusations against Ensar. This strategy included rejecting the launch of an investigation commission in the Parliament on child abuse. Sema Ramazanoğlu, the Minister of Family Affairs and Social Policies, who is supposedly at the forefront of child protection in fight against child abuse, in fact pioneered the Ensar defence.
Meanwhile, the pro-government users on Twitter, also rose to Turkcell’s defence collectively, seemingly mirroring the ultra-nationalistic tone embraced by the party since the elections in June 2015. According to a digital leaflet distributed on Twitter, Turkcell was allegedly the target of a global conspiracy for “the Russians to take over Turkcell shares cheaply” and “the British Vodafone can carry out intelligence operations in Turkey freely.” A hashtag #millioperator (the national operator) was also created. These critical voices seemingly missed a core issue in that the majority of Turkcell shares are in fact already owned by foreign companies.
The Turkcell story features every single element of the regime established in Turkey by the Justice and Development Party. It has the elimination of rival businesspeople, board takeover by crony-capitalist methods and transferring capital to pro-government foundations with Islamist agendas. Characteristic throughout is the social media gagging, ultra-nationalistic paranoid conspiracy theories, twisted facts and a sad defence.
Globally, and even in Turkey prior to recent events, a massive child abuse scandal would not have created such a sharp and politicized social dispute. Normally, a giant corporation such as Turkcell would have left Ensar sponsorship in a blink of an eye, at least until the foundation comes clean on these horrifying allegations. However, everything in today’s Turkey is based on unreservedly obeying the regime.
Turkcell risks losing thousands of subscribers and more importantly, its rock solid brand image built brick by brick over the last two decades; however the company cannot move an inch away from the official AKP line, which is increasingly illogical and irrational. The Ensar scandal may not necessarily punch Turkcell’s one-way ticket on the downfall train, however it surely will leave a colossal dent in its otherwise highbrow image.