Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is preparing to assume the office of president on Aug. 28 following his election to the state’s top post on Aug. 10, has left a legacy on journalism which is filled with confrontation and rebuke of journalists, attempts at censorship, prosecution and even deportation of critical journalists.
Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has ruled the country since 2002, and there has been widespread controversy over press freedom in the country, with many doubting that such a freedom even exists, reports Today’s Zaman.
As a matter of fact, the US-based watchdog Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press 2014” report has downgraded Turkey from the category of “partly free” to “not free” because of what the institution called “the worsening media freedom situation.”
The prime minister has outright control over seven national newspapers and 12 national TV stations. In addition to those institutions, he also exerts influence over and interferes with the broadcasting and publication policies of stations and newspapers that don’t offer ready support for his policies.
Erdoğan dismisses the criticism leveled against his government over the poor state of press freedom in Turkey, arguing that the Turkish media are freer than the media in most European countries.
Yet, he is leaving the office of the prime minister with a legacy of attacks on journalists and journalism institutions, which obviously gives one an idea about the state of press freedom in the country.
In 2008, Erdoğan’s government revoked the press accreditation of seven journalists, sparking much criticism. The Prime Ministry’s press center said the move was not related to the media outlets the journalists were working for but rather to the journalists themselves. However, the exact reason for the decision was not revealed. Milliyet reporter Abdullah Karakuş, Turan Yılmaz and Hasan Tüfekçi of Hürriyet, Vatan’s Veli Toprak, Fatma Çözen of Star TV, Ali Ekber Ertürk of Akşam and Sultan Özer of Evrensel all had their accreditation renewal applications rejected. Some of these journalists had been covering Erdoğan for years, drawing further attention to the unexpected move.
When this occurred, some press organizations said the move clearly targeted journalists who asked questions and pursued news stories that upset the Prime Ministry or contradicted its official line.
In the same year, in response to a statement from the International Press Institute (IPI) and World Association of Press Councils (WAPC) calling on the government to end pressure on the Turkish media, Erdoğan said: “Today an international press organization sent me an ultimatum. Who are you to send me an ultimatum? What ultimatum? An international press council that they have formed themselves, which nobody in my country accepts. We attended some meetings held by [the WAPC] earlier. But later we found out that they only work [in favor of] one company. They are only related to the Doğan Group, no other press group attends their meetings. And we have never been to their events again.”
At a news conference during the Gezi Park protests, Reuters reporter Birsen Altaylı got her share of reprimand from Erdoğan when she asked the prime minister whether he would soften his stance toward the protesters, whom he referred to as “a group of looters.”
“What would be an example of a softened stance? If you teach me that, I will speak accordingly,” said an angry Erdoğan.
When Altaylı said the protesters were uneasy with some of the government’s practices, Erdoğan said threateningly, “At the moment, there is 50 percent of Turkey [referring to the pro-government electorate voting for his party] whom we held with difficulty in their houses [from confronting the Gezi protesters],” and accused the reporter of misinforming people about the situation on the ground.
In November 2013, Finnish journalist Tom Kankkonen also faced rebuke by Erdoğan when he asked at a news conference, where Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen was present, about the government’s plans to ban mixed-gender student houses.
“This friend was given a special mission [to ask this question],” Erdoğan said to Kankkonen, adding that his government has never interfered with citizens’ private lives.
Erdoğan’s remarks caused him to receive a statement from Union of Journalists in Finland (UJF), which said the question asked by the Finnish reporter revealed the approach of the Turkish government toward freedom of expression and the press.
‘Alo Fatih’ becomes symbol of meddling in media
Mehmet Fatih Saraç, an executive at the Habertürk daily and TV station, made headlines in early February when a phone call between him and Prime Minister Erdoğan was leaked onto the Internet, revealing that Erdoğan had instructed Saraç to censor the broadcasts of opposition leaders. In a leaked phone conversation claimed to be between Erdoğan and Saraç, the prime minister is heard instructing Saraç to remove a Habertürk news ticker quoting Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, who called for President Abdullah Gül to step in and ease tensions during the Gezi Park protests of June 2013.
The Habertürk news station, which aired the broadcast, is part of the Ciner Media Group. In the call, Erdoğan allegedly told Saraç: “Fatih, are you watching the press conference [of Bahçeli] currently being aired [on Habertürk]? Fatih, you are not aware of what you are doing.”
Another audio recording exposed Erdoğan’s alleged instruction to reduce the station’s coverage of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) İstanbul mayoral candidate Mustafa Sarıgül.
Erdoğan later admitted to a reporter that he had called Saraç to censor the news ticker on Habertürk TV. Claiming that he had made the call to stop slander against himself, Erdoğan suggested that he might have called other media outlets from time to time. Though he did not comment on the other audio recordings, neither did he deny that they happened.
The scandal reached new heights when the editor-in-chief of the Habertürk daily, Fatih Altaylı, admitted in a TV interview with journalist Cüneyt Özdemir that not only is Habertürk under excessive government pressure, so is the entire Turkish media.
Erdoğan’s dislike of journalists that are critical of him and his government reached a new level when his government ordered the deportation of Today’s Zaman journalist and blogger Mahir Zeynalov, an Azerbaijani national. Zeynalov was deported in February after the Prime Ministry Coordination Center (BİMER) decided that he was using his Twitter account to spread “statements contrary to fact.”
Many international and national press organizations condemned Zeynalov’s deportation, describing it as a severe blow to freedom of the press.
Zaman reporter Ahmet Dönmez was confronted by Erdoğan when he asked the prime minister three questions about bribery and graft allegations his government has been facing, during his joint press conference with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in Ankara in February.
The questions were related to Erdoğan receiving bribes to allow the construction of villas in İzmir’s Urla district by changing zoning restrictions in a first-degree environmentally protected zone; creating a pool of funds raised by businessmen to purchase a media group in favor of the government’s interests in return for granting huge public tenders to these businessmen; and Erdoğan’s intervention in the Habertürk TV station’s broadcast to censor the speech of an opposition leader.
Erdoğan defended himself by saying these assertions had only been put forth by a particular media group, accusing the reporter of “being a voice” of his bosses. He told Dönmez that he does not have the courage to tell his bosses about the “inaccuracy” of their claims.
Dönmez filed a lawsuit against Erdoğan seeking TL 50,000 in compensation for responding to his questions at the press conference in an “insulting and humiliating manner.”
Erdoğan’s government dealt a new blow to freedom of the press when it arbitrarily detained a journalist and filed criminal complaints against several others, including Today’s Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş in March.
Erdoğan filed a complaint against Keneş, Zaman Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mehmet Kamış, Today’s Zaman columnist Emre Uslu, journalist Önder Aytaç and former İstanbul Police Department Intelligence Bureau Chief Ali Fuat Yılmazer. Erdoğan’s lawyers said in their petition to the Ankara Public Prosecutor’s Office that they were seeking travel bans for Uslu, Aytaç and Yılmazer and claimed that Keneş and Kamış had humiliated Erdoğan in their tweets.
Later the same month, Today’s Zaman photojournalist Derviş Genç was detained during Erdoğan’s election rally in İstanbul on the grounds that he had taken photographs of Erdoğan’s adviser Mustafa Varank.
Varank reportedly complained to the police that the photojournalist was secretly listening to and recording his conversations, and asked the police to detain Genç. Despite interference by other journalists present at the rally, police officers took Genç to a police station, where Genç was made to spend five hours in police custody.
Two audio recordings purportedly between Erdoğan and Star daily Editor-in-Chief Mustafa Karaalioğlu provided further proof of Erdoğan’s high-handed control of the media. In the recordings, which were uploaded to the Internet by Twitter user “Başçalan” (Prime Thief) in March, Erdoğan is heard talking with Karaalioğlu in a rather critical tone about articles by two Star columnists, Mehmet Altan and Hidayet Şefkatli Tuksal, both of whom were later fired from the paper.
Karaalioğlu is heard in both recordings constantly attempting to appease the prime minister and he starts and ends many of his sentences with the word “efendim” (sir).
In April, Prime Minister Erdoğan angrily told Tuğba Mezararkalı, a correspondent from the Zaman daily, which he associates with the so-called “parallel state,” to leave her job while speaking to journalists at İstanbul Atatürk Airport. Mezararkalı had asked the prime minister if former EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış would be expelled from the party over a leaked recording in which he is heard making fun of the Quran during a phone conversation with a friend.
Denying that Bağış made those alleged remarks, Erdoğan then told Mezararkalı to leave her job, stating: “I think you should change your place [job]. Don’t stay there [at Zaman] any longer. It is not right to be with libelers.” Zaman is affiliated with the faith-based Hizmet movement, which Erdoğan accuses of establishing a so-called parallel state within the state.
Erdoğan called CNN reporter ‘an agent’
CNN International İstanbul correspondent Ivan Watson, who was detained on air during the Gezi anniversary protests on May 31, was accused by Erdoğan of being an “agent,” an accusation that has drawn the criticisms of press freedom advocacy groups in Turkey. “A flunky from CNN was trying to do something [at Taksim Square on May 31]. CNN International conducted an eight-hour broadcast during last year’s Gezi events. Why? To stir up trouble in my country. This year, they were caught red-handed,” said Erdoğan during an address to his party members in June.
“They [at CNN] have nothing to do with free, impartial and independent media. They are given special tasks. They serve as agents. That is why they are here,” he said.
US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf made a statement on the controversy and said Erdoğan’s accusation that Watson is an undercover agent in the country sent to stir up trouble is “ridiculous” and that CNN is dedicated to independent and non-biased reporting.
Watson — who described Erdoğan’s allegations as “absurd” and “almost laughable” and noted that he has been accredited with a yellow press badge from the prime minister’s office for 12 years in Turkey — left İstanbul for Hong Kong following the incident.
The latest victim of Erdoğan’s harsh stance against critical journalists was Amberin Zaman, a reporter for The Economist magazine and columnist for the Taraf daily. Erdoğan openly targeted Zaman in Malatya earlier this month, calling her a “shameless militant woman disguised under the name of a journalist.”
“Know your place,” Erdoğan said. “They gave you a pen and you are writing a column in a newspaper,” the prime minister yelled in a bid to defame the journalist.
A petition has been launched online calling on Erdoğan to apologize for his public insults of Zaman.