Turkey’s crackdown on critical news outlet OdaTV has highlighted how a wing within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is gaining increasing influence in Turkey and effectively operating as a state within the state, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said. 

The secret group close to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, known as the Pelican group, has infiltrated many branches of the state, including the judiciary, it said.

Journalists from critical news outlet OdaTV, including editor-in-chief Barış Pehlivan, were arrested this month over a report covering the funeral of a Turkish intelligence officer killed in Libya.

The arrests took place after a pro-government reporter accompanying Erdoğan on a flight back from Azerbaijan complained to the Turkish president about OdaTV not having faced charges over what he saw as a series of transgressions.

“A week later, the Turkish judiciary initiated investigations into OdaTV employees. Police arrested Editor-in-Chief Barış Pehlivan, news chief Barış Terkoğlu and editor Hülya Kılınç. Access to the website was blocked. The arrested journalists reportedly face up to nine years in prison,” Deutsche Welle said.

The arrests for revealing information and documents related to intelligence activities took place despite the information already having been released by an opposition lawmaker in parliament. The Constitutional Court also made a landmark ruling in 2016 that said information is not subject to secrecy rules if it was already public knowledge.

“Journalists working for Pelican have publicly welcomed and supported the arrests, and OdaTV has for years been reporting on the restructuring of the Turkish justice system initiated by Pelican,” Alican Uludağ, a journalist with Turkey’s opposition Cumhuriyet daily, told Deutsche Welle.

According to Uludağ, the influential group is led for the most part by Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak.

The Pelican group is Erdoğan’s troll army, Fırat Erez, a journalist and former member of the group told the German broadcaster, and it works by trying to slander political opponents on social networks and spread disinformation.

The group’s headquarters, an Ottoman mansion on the Bosporus, and the salaries of its staff were financed by a private hospital run by Erdoğan’s close confidant and Turkish Health Minister, Fahrettin Koca, Erez added.