Red alarms went off for the pro-government media hours after a Turkish paper published a controversial interview with an owner of a messaging app that is at the heart of Turkey’s post-coup crackdown and which sent thousands of people to prisons across the country.
Guests for TV talk shows were rushed during prime time to clean up the mess while pro-government users took on the social media to contain the damage many believe is already irreversible. The interview with David Keynes, owner of ByLockmessaging app, effectively debunked most of the claims Turkish authorities made for months. Downloading the messaging app was used as the single most important evidence to detain tens of thousands of people as part of a crackdown in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt on July 15. The interview, however, put under question thousands of ByLock-linked arrests, reinforcing criticisms that the charges had been bogus all along.
Hurriyet, the paper that published the interview on its front page, inadvertently damaged the government’s narrative it helped build in the past few months. The interview sent chills across Ankara, where officials, according to sources, were making incessant phone calls to mouthpiece TV networks and papers to contain the damage.
Some pro-government journalists bashed Hurriyet for the interview, in which Keynes claimed that the app could be downloaded from App Store and Google Play and that it was not even available to download since January this year, 7 months before the coup attempt.
Since the July 15 coup plot, the authorities were scurrying to find any shred of evidence that would put Gulenists behind bars. Most of these individuals were known to the government or its spy agency, but it was hard to make connections between them and the Gulenist group — an organization listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey. The courts were open to anything — a subscription to Gulenist newspapers, having a bank account at Bank Asya, working at a Gulenist school, having one dollar bills at home (prosecutors claimed the serial number was a secret code sent from the U.S.) or posting tweets sympathetic to the Gulen movement. The accusations were astonishing since these activities were not criminal prior to the coup. The government even designed a timeline for these actions. This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said December 2013 was the deadline to leave the Gulen movement. Association with them of any kind since that day means trouble, he added.
But nothing helped the authorities jail thousands of individuals more than the messaging app ByLock. It was an app that was unknown to many, hence a mysterious one. The government claimed that Gulenists installed the app manually. Therefore anyone who had this app at one point must have a tie to a Gulenist organization. The authorities also argued that the app was solely used by Gulenists and it was hard to crack. They claimed that ByLock was designed in Turkey’s own national scientific body and that passwords were serial numbers on one-dollar bills. ByLock was used to organize and carry out the July 15 coup attempt, according to the government.
Keynes rejected all of these claims. He said ByLock was developed by his roommate, could be publicly downloaded and it was impossible for Gulenists to use it to organize the July 15 coup attempt as it was dead long before the coup took place.
Keynes also said 90 percent of users were Gulenists. It was not clear how Keynes figured out the identity of users who downloaded the messaging app. Pro-government media blasted Hurriyet for “90 percent” remark, warning that many Gulenists would say they were “in 10 percent“ in their defense.
At least 82,000 people were detained and 35,000 were arrested since July 15 coup attempt. Most of the arrested suspects are sitting in prisons for downloading this app.
Late on Monday, Hurriyet replaced this top story with another one, in which the author made sure that the app was used by Gulenists. Most of the claims Keynes made were also dropped from the article. In the newspaper’s English-language version, the initial headline was “Patent holder of Gülenist messaging app revealed in US.” Five hours later, the headline was replaced with this: “ByLock use is an evidence of Gülen network links: Owner.” The change reflected Hurriyet’s damage control efforts.
It said Keynes entered into Turkey three times in 2016. The last time he left Turkey was August 7, just 3 days after the Guardian revealed that Keynes is the owner ofByLock. It is unclear how and why the Turkish government did not arrest Keynes.