According to the audio recording, Erdoğan gives Demirören, owner of Milliyet and Vatan newspapers, a roasting about the publication of the minutes of a meeting between Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and a delegation from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in Öcalan’s prison cell on the island of İmralı.
Demirören is heard explaining despairingly to Erdoğan that he was also shocked to see it on the page and that he would do what is necessary to fix the situation. However, after failing to cool a fuming Erdoğan down, Demirören is finally heard crying.
The Milliyet daily’s main headline on Feb. 28, 2013, was “İmralı minutes,” the article giving all the details of what the PKK leader discussed with the BDP representatives. Erdoğan called Demirören directly and started to lambast him, Editor-In-Chief Derya Sazak and correspondent Namık Durukan for the story, using words like “shameful,” “immoral,” “vile” and “lowbred.”
The report, which made public Öcalan’s thoughts on the talks between the government and the PKK to end the three-decade-long Kurdish dispute and armed conflict, sent shockwaves across the country. The report also included Öcalan’s thoughts on several politicians and opinion leaders. Erdoğan bashed Milliyet at the time, accusing it of attempting to sabotage the settlement process, which was then in its nascent stage.
After the scolding by Erdoğan, Demirören is heard promising to find out and divulge the identity of the person who leaked the story to the reporter by that evening. “Did I upset you?” Demirören asked Erdoğan, to which the prime minister responded, “You smoked it all up” — a Turkish idiom meaning “you messed up completely.” Erdoğan went on to say that he will stop inviting journalists from Milliyet to accompany him on his trips abroad.
The leaked recording gave insights into the reasons behind a wave of purges in the newspaper during the period following the publication of the story. S
easoned journalists Hasan Cemal and Can Dündar as well as Sazak and the paper’s publication coordinator Tahir Özyurtseven, who defended the story on the grounds that it was an accomplishment in journalistic terms, were all dismissed from the paper.
Cemal wrote in one of his columns at the time that “making a newspaper is one thing and governing a country is another. No one should mix the two together and neither of them should meddle in the business of the other.” Erdoğan’s reaction to these lines was harsh. In a public rally in Balıkesir, he mentioned the journalist by name, saying: “Let your journalism sink.” Cemal was then sent on compulsory leave for two weeks. When he resumed working, this time the paper’s administration decided to censure the first article he wrote after his return, after which Cemal parted ways with the paper for which he had written for 15 years.
In the leaked audio recording, Erdoğan says the settlement process is a very delicate issue and that media outlets are expected to show the utmost sensitivity in order not to raise nationalist sentiment against the government’s initiative.
Dwmirören is heard offering an apology for the news piece which, according to Erdoğan, is detrimental to the critical talks with the PKK which form part of the settlement process, and assures the prime minister that he will do what is necessary and fire both the editor-in-chief and the reporter in question.
Toward the end of the conversation, the 76-year-old Milliyet owner is heard saying, “How did I get involved in this business?” while in tears after the heavy insults from the Turkish prime minister.
Speaking on Dündar’s show on the +1 station, Sazak confirmed that the phone call was authentic since Demirören had talked with him about the conversation. Sazak said it was shameful and humiliating for a person to hear such insults.
“What did we do other than publish the minutes? They turned out to be completely true, each and every word. I am ashamed on behalf of the prime minister as he speaks. No prime minister should heap such insults on journalists for revealing the truth,” said Sazak.
The former Milliyet editor-in-chief added that the situation is getting worse every day for journalism, recalling another recently leaked tape in which Erdoğan instructs a former justice minister to closely monitor a court case involving media mogul Aydın Doğan and make sure that he is not let off without paying a fine.
“They have been paralyzing society’s collective memory, but they are showing their true face now. I have been close to prime ministers, I have been close to presidents and I have never seen such a thing before,” Sazak told Dündar.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) parliamentary group deputy chairman Akif Hamzaçebi said, in reaction to the latest audio leaks, that the prime minister has been pressuring media outlets to silence dissent and prevent the expression of critical views about him and his government.
“We have been assuming that there was only the Alo Fatih hotline [referring to Erdoğan’s calls to the deputy chairman of Ciner Media Group, Fatih Saraç], but it came out that the prime minister had direct lines [to media bosses] too. So he was working through two separate routes. This [latest conversation with Demirören] lays the pressure on the media bare,” he said.