Erdoğan's act of censorship of media exposed by a voice record, draws ire

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s alleged interference with a news channel’s reporting by instructing a top manager at the channel to immediately remove a news ticker, an act exposed by a voice recording, has been met with serious criticism from the representatives of political parties.
“It is clear how they [those who govern Turkey] have established a dictatorial regime and how all the media have been placed under oppression,” Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) parliamentary group deputy chairman Yusuf Halaçoğlu said in Parliament on Wednesday.

In the voice recording available on YouTube, Erdoğan gave phone instructions to Fatih Saraç, deputy chairman of the Ciner Media Group, to which the Habertürk news channel belongs, to stop a news ticker in which MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli called on President Abdullah Gül to intervene and decrease the tension during the Gezi Park protests, which rocked the country at the beginning of last summer.

“It is very surprising… There is no need for such things [to be displayed on television],” Erdoğan said to Saraç on June 4, 2013, while on an official visit to Morocco. According to the voice recording, Saraç responded to Erdoğan, who was apparently vexed by the MHP leader’s comment that the president should intervene, thereby sidelining the prime minister, “I will deal with it immediately, sir.”

The voice recordings, apparently revealed on Tuesday night, seemed to show that Erdoğan was closely following, even while abroad, what the Turkish media disclosed to the public. The voice recording of Erdoğan, in which the prime minister allegedly instructed, while the Gezi Park protests were at their peak, a senior official of a television channel to immediately stop running a news ticker that did not appeal to him, has amply demonstrated how far the prime minister goes in his efforts to control the media.

Halaçoğlu played the voice recording in question, which is also available on a website called “Haramzadeler” (those who earn ill-gotten gains according to religious norms), during his speech in Parliament on Wednesday, for all to hear.

According to the wiretapped voice recording, Habertürk’s Saraç, upon the prime minister’s instructions that the ticker conveying Bahçeli’s statement be removed immediately, called someone named Abdullah, who is apparently in charge of the flow of news on the television channel, to tell him to remove the ticker immediately. In his harsh criticism of Erdoğan, Halaçoğlu said the voice recording was proof enough of government censorship in the media.

Another leading MHP official, Şefkat Çetin, a deputy chairman of the party, lashed out at Erdoğan, saying in a statement to Today’s Zaman, “Erdoğan’s attempt to censor the MHP and our leader is […] a black stain on freedom of the press in Turkey.”

In the past couple of years, some prominent figures in the media, mostly columnists, such as Nuray Mert, have, seemingly upon the instructions of the government, lost their jobs, while some, such as Mehmet Altan or Hasan Cemal, felt the need to quit the dailies at which they were columnists.

For Atilla Kart, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Erdoğan’s interference represents much more than merely an attempt to apply censorship on the media. “This indicates, more than simple interference in the media, the formation of a dictatorial [governing] structure that puts fundamental rights and freedoms in jeopardy,” Kart told Today’s Zaman.

Kart maintained, at a press conference in mid-summer of last year, that Saraç, who is known to have close ties with Erdoğan, acted like a hidden boss of the Ciner Media Group, which, as can be inferred from its broadcasting policy during the Gezi Park protests, strongly supported the government at the expense of protesters.

During the conference, Kart also criticized the government for placing people close to itself in top posts in media groups as supervisors to make sure those media outlets broadcast or publish in accordance with the wishes of the government.

A recent report by Freedom House, a US-based nongovernmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights, concluded that the Turkish government has failed to resist the temptation of authoritarianism embedded in the state and has applied strong-arm tactics to suppress the media via intimidation, mass firings, buying off or forcing out media moguls, wiretapping and imprisonment, “which are not acceptable in a democracy.”

Hasip Kaplan, a deputy from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), maintained that, in reference to Erdoğan’s alleged interference with the Habertürk news channel, all the mainstream media are under threat from the government. “This incident amply demonstrates that press freedom is being trampled on in Turkey,” Kaplan told Today’s Zaman.

In its report titled “Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media and Power in Turkey,” released at the end of January, Freedom House called on the Turkish government to recognize that in a democracy, a free press and other independent institutions play a very important role and that the government should cease its threats against journalists, repeal the criminal defamation law and overly broad antiterrorism and criminal organization laws that have been used to jail dozens of journalists and comply with European and international standards in procurement practices in order to reduce the incentive for media owners to curry favor by distorting the news.

The report was prepared after a Freedom House delegation traveled to Turkey in November of last year to meet with journalists, NGOs, business leaders and senior government officials about the “deteriorating state of media freedom in the country.”

The report stated that Erdoğan frequently attacks journalists by name if they write critical commentaries and that journalists have lost their jobs after these public attacks. It also said at least 59 journalists were fired or forced out in retaliation for their coverage of last summer’s Gezi Park protests in İstanbul. With the Dec. 17, 2013 corruption scandal, another string of prominent columnists have been fired.

Referring to a massive purge in the National Police Department and judiciary that came after the breaking of the graft probe in which Erdoğan, his son Bilal Erdoğan and four former Cabinet ministers are also implicated, as revealed by various voice recordings, the report added, “The crisis of democracy in Turkey is not a future problem — it is right here, right now.”

The report also mentioned that editors and reporters from across Turkey’s media had told Freedom House about “angry phone calls from the prime minister’s office after critical stories run, and—long before Gezi—of media owners being told to fire specific reporters. In a growing number of cases, editors and owners are firing reporters preemptively to avoid a confrontation with government officials.”

In a related development:

The details of a summary of judicial investigation proceedings into the Turkuaz Media Group, which pro-government businesspeople allegedly helped buy by contributing to a pool of millions of dollars and hiring armored vehicles to transport the money, were shared via Twitter by user Haramzadeler100 (sons of thieves).
The owner of the Twitter account has maintained that the voice recordings in the summary of proceedings were obtained through legal technical surveillance of phones conducted by financial crimes and anti-organized crime units of the police department.

The Twitter user claims that Çalık Group, the owner of Turkuaz Media Group, wis
hes to get out of the media business and provided certain businesspeople with armored vehicles for the transportation of the money pool — which the government allegedly collected from businesspeople after pressuring them and promising shares in big government tenders. Some mainstream media outlets, including the Sabah daily and the ATV television station, are part of Turkuaz Media Group.

Technical police surveillance determined that Mehmet Cengiz, the owner of Cengiz Holding, asked Ahmet Çalık, then-owner of the media group, and Serhat Albayrak, CEO of the media group and a relative of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for a vehicle to carry a large portion of the money Cengiz planned to withdraw from his account at Ziraat Bankası (Ziraat Bank) so that he could transfer it to Aktifbank, a bank owned by Çalık.

According to the voice recordings posted on Haramzadeler100’s Twitter, the money Cengiz delivered to Çalık Group for the sale of the media group was sent by an armored Mercedes Vito with the license number 34 FAH 52 and a Renault Fluence with the license plate number 34 VU 8861, owned by Çalık Holding.

In a wiretapped phone conversation from Oct. 7, 2013, a voice, allegedly Cengiz, can be heard asking Çalık: “Ahmet Abi [older brother], can you send me that thing?” In response, Çalık asked “Pardon?” obviously having failed to understand what Cengiz meant. “The vehicle, the vehicle,” Cengiz repeated, after which Çalık allegedly responded, “Okay, brother.”

According to the tweeted voice recordings, former Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications Minister Binali Yıldırım dismantled the mobile phones of those businesspeople who contributed to the pool of money to prevent wiretapping.

Businesspeople involved in the scheme to buy Turkuaz Media Group were allegedly pressured by Ömer Sertbaş, advisor to then minister Yıldırım, to provide the money within two months.

Mehmet Cengiz, Celal Koloğlu, Nihat Özdemir, İbrahim Çeçen and an unknown businessperson allegedly contributed a total of $100 million each to the pool to buy the media group. Other businesspeople contributed smaller amounts, including Adnan Çebi ($30 million) and Hayrettin Özaltın ($20 million). Çeçen is reportedly willing to give an additional $50 million if he is allowed a share in the third Bosporus bridge tender. According to the voice recordings, it is unknown if Muzaffer Nasıroğlu and Abdullah Tivnikli made any contributions to the pool.

In earlier tweets by Haramzadeler100, it was said Çalık decided to sell his media company as he was growing more and more frustrated with Erdoğan’s intervention into its editorial decisions. He claimed that Erdoğan was meddling with the paper and the TV station through his relative, Albayrak, who was the group’s general manager.

Upon rumors that Rupert Murdoch was interested in purchasing Çalık’s share to enter the media business in Turkey, Erdoğan assigned Yıldırım to organize several businesspeople to collect enough funds to acquire the media group, Haramzadeler claimed.

Erdoğan was also allegedly directly involved in the process of meeting with businessmen Cemal Kalyoncu and Ömer Faruk Kalyoncu on July 21, 2013 at the prime minister’s home in İstanbul’s Kısıklı neighborhood. The meeting was also attended by Berat Albayrak, the CEO of Çalık Holding and Erdoğan’s son-in-law.