Reflections on Covering the Zarrab Trial

During my coverage of the case of Reza Zarrab, a gold trader whose arrest created a geopolitical firestorm for U.S.-Turkish relations, I posted these reflections on my Facebook account on Dec. 12, 2017, describing how my coverage resonated in Turkey.

Gold trader Reza Zarrab

Whether in Washington or Ankara, New York City or Istanbul, citizens of every country around the world want to know what their government is up to. They want the news delivered to them quickly, accurately and without censorship or intimidation by the gatekeepers of that information.

As a U.S.-based journalist, I initially viewed the case of Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab through the prism of its significance here: Since his arrest for blowing a multibillion-dollar hole in sanctions against Iran, Zarrab has received help from President Donald Trump's former top allies and associates. They include my former mayor Rudy Giuliani, ex-Attorney General Michael Mukasey and according to multiple reports, ex-national security advisor Michael Flynn, who recently pleaded guilty to lying about his dealings — not only with a Russian diplomat — but also as a registered agent for Turkey.

Little did I know — or could I have known at the time — that my live coverage of the case on Twitter would be seized upon by so many people half a world away.

Almost all wanted to find out the truth about a 2013 corruption scandal involving Zarrab, whose immense wealth, pop-star wife and once-cozy relationship with Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who later became the country's president) made him a flashpoint for events that electrified the country.

Four years ago, Erdogan called the detention of his allies on suspicion of taking millions in bribes a “judicial coup,” and the probe quickly disappeared, with investigative journalism on the events fiercely punished in Turkey. As documented by every independent press advocacy group, regulators eliminated dozens of media outlets and authorities imprisoned dozens of journalists without trial.

It took a public trial in New York City to break the wall of Turkish-government enforced silence, and it took a flurry of tweets and retweets to amplify what had long been suppressed. Every allegation of a payoff, one between “45 and 50 million” euros, went viral in Turkey, as did every name of a minister, shell company and claim of an illicit transaction. Critics of the government found corroboration or new details of information known long before, and supporters saw a plot against Erdogan in every revelation and wrinkle.

If I was unfamiliar with the name of a company or minister, thousands of people hungry for that information crowd-sourced tips, research, and instant translation for every tweet from English to Turkish. People reached out by email and messages sharing personal stories about what the information meant to them. They were moving reminders of why journalists do their work in the face of repression and worse.

By the end of week one, a New York Times reporter here tweeted that she got hacked from Turkey, and said the attackers targeted both her Twitter and Instagram accounts.

When I shared what had happened with my ballooning assembly of Turkish followers, one tweeted: “Welcome to Turkey.”

Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey in 155th place — down four places in the wake of a failed coup attempt last year — in the most recent press freedom index. The United States is now ranked 43rd, falling two spots after Trump’s election. The Paris-based group noted with alarm that Trump declared the news media the “enemy of the people.”

Since Zarrab finished testifying last week, more witnesses have come forward against the man on trial: a Turkish state-run bank minister named Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who is entitled to the presumption of innocence under the U.S. judicial system. None of what I am writing here should be construed as an opinion of the allegations against him, or a commentary on internal Turkish affairs. If I am commenting editorially on anything here, it is in support of transparency and press freedom here and abroad - as every journalist should.

As the information continues to trickle out, drip by drip, embarrassing two presidents who are both hostile to the press, I receive thousands of daily reminders about why I became a reporter.

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