ISTANBUL: A Turkish television anchor on Wednesday resigned and risks prosecution after triggering outrage by commenting that if Turkey intended to harm civilians in its Syria operation it would have already bombed staunchly secular areas in Istanbul.
The comments by Ahmet Keser, an anchor on the pro-government Akit TV, were condemned by both opposition critics and ruling party officials, while Istanbul prosecutors have announced an investigation.
Keser, a presenter on the breakfast TV segment “Gun Basliyor” (The Day Begins), made the comments as he rejected claims the civilians had been killed in Turkey’s operation against Kurdish militia in Syria.
He asked why the Turkish army would ever target civilians, and added: “If we were going to kill civilians then we would start with Cihangir, Nisantasi and Etiler, there are plenty of traitors there. And there’s also the Turkish parliament.”
Cihangir, Nisantasi and Etiler are three upscale neighbourhoods in Istanbul where residents are predominantly secular, hostile to the government and enjoy a European lifestyle with coffee shops and bars.
Istanbul prosecutors have launched a criminal probe into the programme on accusations of inciting hatred and hostility, state media said.
The spokesman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Mahir Unal condemned the presenter’s comments, describing them as an “open provocation and a sabotage”.
“Who are you? We are not going to agree or approve of this. It’s a stupid sabotage of Turkey’s unity,” he told the NTV channel in an interview.
Akit TV said in a statement on its social media accounts that it did not approve of Keser’s comments and he had now left his position so as not to give a “pretext” for the channel to be criticised in public.
The controversy has erupted as Turkey wages an over month-long military campaign in northern Syria aimed at dislodging a Kurdish militia deemed by Ankara to be terrorists.
The authorities have made clear that public criticism of the aims of the campaign amounts to treachery and have arrested 845 people for protesting or “spreading propaganda” against the offensive.
Thirty-three Turkish soldiers have been killed so far in the offensive, all hailed by media and officials as “martyrs” for Islam.
But the operation has raised tensions in Turkey’s increasingly polarised society ahead of 2019 elections, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspiring devotion and opposition in equal measure.
Erdogan in a speech in the eastern region of Kahramanmaras on Saturday raised eyebrows by inviting on stage a young girl dressed in military uniform and evoking the idea that she could become a “martyr”.
“I hope that if you become a martyr they will drape you with the Turkish flag. Be ready for anything” said Erdogan. “Yes,” replied the weeping girl.