For some time, careful observers have noticed that two ostensible US allies, Turkey and Pakistan, are of the same mind on numerous issues around the globe. From Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan taking up the cause of Pakistan in Kashmir at the UN, to Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly sending mercenaries to Azerbaijan to assist Turkish forces against Armenia, their cooperation on key foreign policy issues is significant.
But something that has received less discussion is how Turkey's international propaganda arm, TRT World in particular, is also working for Pakistan's interests, and against Pakistan's foes.
When I call TRT World Turkey's "propaganda arm," this is not hyperbole. TRT World, founded in 2015 not long after Erdogan ascended to the presidency of Turkey, is a registered as a foreign agent under the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), meaning that, according to the US government, not only it is funded by the Turkish government, but its editorial decisions are strongly influenced by it.
The examples of how TRT World has carried Pakistan's water in recent years are numerous, but a recent article on TRT World on the controversy surrounding Pakistan's ambassador to the US, Masood Khan, is a perfect example.
In an article, "Is the US delaying the Pakistani ambassador's agrément?", TRT World staff writer Saad Hasan (listed as a "Senior Producer" as well on his LinkedIn page) writes a fawning article, painting Khan, whose appointment was apparently delayed due to security concerns, as a benign diplomat being attacked by malevolent forces, such as US Congressman Scott Perry (R-PA) and other civil society groups, because of his "strong position on Kashmir."
Hasan vaguely references a controversy over Khan's praise of Burhan Wani, who he deems a "Kashmiri separatist leader," but then blasts Sam Westrop, the author of a prominent article raising this concern, as working for a think tank with a "strong anti-Muslim bias" (Full disclosure: I work for the Middle East Forum, the think-tank in question).
The truth is significantly more complicated. Hasan neglects to mention that Wani was a commander in Hizbul Mujahideen, an organisation designated as a terrorist group by both the US and India, known for brutal murders, torture, and largely responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Hindus from Kashmir in the early 1990s. He also neglects to mention Khan sharing a stage with Fazlur Rehman Khalil, founder of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. According to the US Treasury, Khalil was a close associate of Osama bin Laden, and both Khalil, and his group, are US-designated terrorists.
While Khan was ultimately allowed to take his post, it seems the mere possibility that Pakistan would be humiliated for choosing someone for a sensitive post with strong sympathies for terrorist groups, was immediately worth TRT World's (i.e. the Erdogan government's) attention, and to promote columns like this aimed, not just at reporting on the controversy or defending Khan, but at smearing Khan's critics.
This is no small matter. According to TRT World, their platform extends to 190 countries with major broadcasting centres in London, Washington DC, and Singapore, and reaches as many as 260 million homes. While it is fair to wonder if TRT World's numbers are exaggerated, it is clear regardless that TRT World has a far larger reach than most state-run foreign media outlets.
However, if this was the only instance, or just one of a small handful, it wouldn't mean a whole lot. Instead, the examples are almost endless.
Just look at TRT World's coverage of the issue of Kashmir, the disputed region between India and Pakistan, which is the rallying cry of many terrorist groups in the region. Every few days, a new story, always favourable to Pakistan's position, pops up. Almost 600 stories on Kashmir since TRT World's founding in 2015, roughly 100 stories a year, just on this one topic.
This might be "normal" if it were an issue directly relevant to Turkey. But at best, it's indirectly related. Istanbul is over 3,100 miles away from Kashmir, across multiple other countries. In contrast, The New York Times, a paper with considerable international presence, and hardly a friend of India, has roughly one story a month on Kashmir. While much of The New York Times output paints India in a very unflattering light, many stories also paint Pakistan and their jihadist fellow travellers in a bad light.
I could find no story in TRT World that seems critical of Pakistan's actions in Kashmir. And indeed, even stories where relatively benign Pakistani problems are discussed, such as arbitration agreements between the government and international corporations for gold and copper mining, Pakistan is painted as a victim of sinister forces, claiming such agreements were "(S)igned by officials who had no idea what they were doing".
TRT World uses its platform to go after the Pakistani regime's opponents in the US.
Perhaps most striking is the continued use of TRT World's platform to go after Pakistan's opponents, even in the US. Several recent stories specifically attack the Hindu American Foundation, an American group that supports a strong US/India relationship and has been harshly critical of Pakistan's treatment of Hindus. Several of these same stories also attack other US groups that work in cooperation with Hindu American Foundation on some Pakistan-related issues, namely, the Armenian National Committee of America, Hellenic American Leadership Association, In Defense of Christians, American Friends of Kurdistan and the aforementioned Middle East Forum.
In the same article, Hindu American Foundation's domestic rivals, the Indian American Muslim Council, a group with open sympathies for the radical Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami movement founded in Pakistan, as well as even worse radicals, is painted as a benign civil society group. Other US-based Islamist groups and their fellow travellers, such as Stand with Kashmir and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) are similarly treated fawningly by TRT World. This is in spite of Stand with Kashmir's open celebration of terror and CAIR's legally documented connections to terror finance.
Perhaps even more curious are the commentators that TRT World promotes on its platform that make many of these attacks. Especially prominent is CJ Werleman, an aggressive Australian atheist who has a history of picking fights with Christians, and of legitimately shocking bigotry against Muslims, but has since shifted to an anti-"Islamophobia" activist that ignores Islamist-related radicalism and seems vaguely sympathetic to the Taliban. Another is Richard Silverstein, an oddball far-Left anti-Israel blogger with a long history of making unsupportable claims.
'Without government-supported platforms like TRT World, or other foreign funded outlets such as Al Jazeera, it seems unlikely that their views would get much attention. Yet turbocharged by Turkey's push to promote Pakistan's interests, they are deemed worthwhile and get a very large audience.
Unlike Qatar's Al Jazeera, which is still fighting registering as a foreign agent in the US and also frequently supports Pakistan's interests, TRT World has the honesty to admit what it is and register as a foreign agent in the US. The fact remains that it has a large audience, and is supporting the interests of the Turkish Government, which increasingly, openly, includes the interests of their Pakistani allies and the jihadists they promote. Some Indian commentators have noticed the problem as well. So long as the Erdogan government is receiving lock-step support from Pakistan on important issues, this is likely to continue.
It is in the best interests of the US and many of its Western allies to have a strong relationship with India. But Pakistan and Turkey have longstanding relationships with the US and many of its allies that will be difficult to disentangle quickly. TRT World is making that more difficult by promoting purely one-sided propaganda aimed at boosting Pakistan. Policymakers across the globe should be weary of undue influence from Turkish propaganda, particularly its effort to whitewash Pakistan.
So long as Erdogan and Khan are bidding to lead the Islamic world in a more Islamist direction, friends of pluralistic and free societies all over the world need to make sure that the Islamists aren't the loudest voice.
Clifford Smith (@CliffSmithZBRDZ) is director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project.