'Did I upset you, boss?' - leak turns up heat on Turkish PM

By Nathalie Savaricas

"Did I upset you, boss?" That's how the owner of one of Turkey's biggest media groups apparently began a telephone conversation with the country's premier after his Milliyet newspaper published a story that displeased the leader, according to a leaked wiretapping.

Between verbal attacks by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the 75-year-old tycoon who owns 15 per cent of the country's liquefied gas distribution market asks: "What would you like me to do?" Erdogan Demiroren breaks down in tears as the talk between the two men ends.

Leaked recordings like this are increasingly compromising the Prime Minister's leadership. An audio recording posted anonymously on YouTube exposed the intelligence chief, the Foreign Minister and other senior officials discussing a possible intervention in Syria.

Erdogan and his wife, Emine, at a rally of supporters in Ankara this week.
Erdogan and his wife, Emine, at a rally of supporters in Ankara this week.

The authenticity of the leaked conversations has yet to be verified, but the government's decisions to try to ban social media sites indicate the extent to which Erdogan is prepared to go to silence information escaping his control.

The Turkish Government moved to ban YouTube, a week after a similar move against Twitter.

"I don't understand how people of good sense could defend this Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There are all kinds of lies there," Erdogan told supporters recently.

Also lies, according to Erdogan, are apparent recordings embroiling him and his entourage in a series of alleged corruption.

The administration has been sinking deeper into scandals that emerged when the police arrested the sons of ministers, high-profile businessmen and politicians for corruption and illicit gold transactions with Iran.

Erdogan responded by reassigning thousands of policemen and prosecutors.

The recordings purport to be of conversations between Erdogan and his son. The Prime Minister is heard telling his son not to accept a bribe from a businessman as the amount is too small, and ordering him to hide millions of euros during a corruption investigation.

Turks will vote in municipal elections tomorrow, which are widely viewed as a referendum on Erdogan's 11 years in power. He is increasingly under pressure after the widening graft probe, a heavy-handed response to protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park last year and an economy that has begun to slow.

This month, the annual World Press Freedom index, published by Reporters without Borders, ranked Turkey at 154 of the 180 listed countries - below Afghanistan and Iraq.

The index says that with 60 journalists in detention at the end of last year, Turkey is one of the "world's biggest prisons for media personnel".

Human rights groups say the administration will use all available means and legislation - ranging from defamation to anti-terrorism laws - to muzzle critical voices.

"The root of the [censorship] problem is the complete intolerance of dissent on behalf of the authorities," said Amnesty International's Turkey researcher, Andrew Gardner.

"They don't like people advocating views that are radically different, and are intolerant to criticism which they view as an insult or form of defamation."

Gardner cites the case of investigative journalists Ahmet Sik and Nesim Seker who were in detention for a year before being prosecuted for their participation in what authorities called "terrorist crimes".

The evidence against them was a draft manuscript of a then-unpublished book and a document outlining the strategy of Ergenekon - an alleged underground network of militarists seeking to overthrow the Government in a coup.

When journalists aren't prosecuted, they can be fired. In the past two years Milliyet has dismissed four reporters who criticised the Prime Minister.

Mehmet Altan was appointed chief editor of the Star newspaper in 2006 but was removed in 2012 after his articles starting criticising the Prime Minister's policies. "It's very difficult to be independent in Turkey," he said. "It's basically fascism here."

Opposition television channel Kanalturk said yesterday its broadcasting licence had been removed a few days ago, and another channel will be barred from airing a show on the night of the elections.

Fatih Karaca, head of the media unit of Ipek group of companies, the producer of Kanalturk, which is linked to a movement led by the United States-based moderate Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, said the decision was politically motivated.

The overwhelming majority of media groups are either in the grip of the Government or under the influence of Gulen, a one-time ally of the leader but now Erdogan's bitter foe.

Zaman, a leading newspaper, has close links to the Gulenists. This, observers claim, leaves the Turkish public with little choice. "We are inspired by the ideas of the Hizmet [the philosophy of Fethullah Gulen] movement," the managing editor of the English-language version of Zaman, Celil Sagir, said.

"These are the values of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression and free-market economy and we will walk with whoever stands for these principles - a political party, a person - but our support will be for the principles, not for these entities."

The rift between Erdogan and the Islamic scholar started early last year, and was exacerbated by last year's brutal crackdown on protesters.

During the Gezi Park protests in June, local media initially turned a blind eye to the movement.

But many in Turkey blame state pressure as the government's control creeps into the judiciary and other authorities.

In 2009, independent media mogul Aydin Dogan, owner of CNN Turkey, was fined 4.5 billion ($7.1 billion) for not paying taxes. The audit came after Dogan's media empire publicised the Lighthouse charity scandal, when a German court convicted three Turkish men of siphoning off 18 million.

Opposition critics at the time claimed the ruling AKP had also been involved, although prosecutors found no evidence of that in Germany.

While Dogan's company appealed and settled for 1 billion, the old rivalry between the media mogul and Erdogan seems to be far from over.

In the leaked recordings, Erdogan appears to admit that he ordered his former Justice Minister to make sure Dogan was punished. The leader said his meddling in the judiciary was "natural".

Recent legislation in Turkey has given the Government greater control over the judiciary.

Like many Turks, Altan fears for his country's future: "The Government has tried to overturn the rule of law. This is a coup in our state."

- Independent

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