Closer to tipping point: Gag order on corruption sparks major outcry, Turkish media defies ban

A court-imposed blanket media ban on Tuesday on reporting about the work of a parliamentary commission established to investigate a major corruption scandal has sparked major outcry in Turkey, prompting the opposition and several media outlets to declare that they will not comply with the ban.

The ban came just a day before four former Cabinet ministers who are allegedly involved in corruption began testifying before the commission.

Some media reports incorrectly claimed on Wednesday that the gag order had been issued upon the demand of Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek, but Çiçek denied the claim. News portals quoted Çiçek as saying on Wednesday, “I did not submit any application to the court.”

The gag order issued by the Ankara 7th Court of Peace is valid until Dec. 27, 2014, when the corruption commission’s mission will be completed.

Early on Wednesday, before Çiçek made the clarification, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had lashed out at the Parliament speaker for his alleged appeal for a media ban.

Demanding that Çiçek explain when Parliament started acting as the protector of thieves, the CHP leader said during a visit to İstanbul on Wednesday: “Is this the duty of Parliament? Whom are you offering support to by [applying for] introducing a gag order?”

Later in the day, Hakkı Köylü, the head of the corruption commission, revealed that he was the one who submitted the petition for a media ban. The Hürriyet daily’s web portal quoted Köylü, a deputy from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), as saying: “There is nothing to hide. We were the ones who made the petition. We bear responsibility.”

For the ban, the court cited publications that it claimed violated the secrecy of the investigation and the principle of the presumption of innocence. The court’s decision, which represents the first time that a media ban has been implemented on the work of a parliamentary investigation commission, is open to appeal.

CHP Deputy Chairman Sezgin Tanrıkulu appealed to the Ankara 8th Court of Peace on Wednesday for an annulment of the ban.

Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) announced it would initiate legal proceedings to have the ban annulled. A platform for independent journalism, P24 said in a statement on Wednesday, “P24 will present the legal petition to the Ankara 7th Lower Criminal Court.”

Four former Cabinet ministers — Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, Interior Minister Muammer Güler, EU Affairs Minister Affairs Egemen Bağış and Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar — left their posts under claims of corruption after a graft investigation went public on Dec. 17 of last year.

Bayraktar testified before the commission on Wednesday, while Bağış is scheduled to testify on Thursday. The other two former ministers — Çağlayan and Güler — are to appear before the commission next week.

Some media outlets including Today’s Zaman and the T24 news portal have announced that they would not comply with the court’s verdict. The Cumhuriyet daily said on its website on Wednesday it would not respect the gag order, which it described as legally null. Noting that a legal verdict without a legal basis has, in some cases, no legal sanction, the announcement said, “This verdict is blatantly against both the law and the rule of law.”

The Rota Haber news portal also said it would not observe the ban based on Article 28 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of the press. “A court or a judge cannot, at its sweet will, pronounce a verdict which has no basis in the laws,” a statement published by the news portal on Wednesday said.

Gökçe Fırat, a leading columnist with the Türk Solu weekly, said on Twitter on Wednesday that they would not comply with the ban and would continue to publish reports regarding the corruption allegations about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Since the scandal broke out, the government has done its best to block and cover up the graft investigation. All the prosecutors and police officers who launched the probe were removed shortly after the probe went public. The current prosecutor of the investigation dropped the charges against 53 suspects in the probe last month.

As the former ministers enjoyed legislative immunity as parliamentary deputies, they were not, as opposed to the other suspects in the graft probe, taken into custody and questioned by the police.

A criminal organization allegedly headed by Reza Zarrab, an Iranian business person of Azerbaijani origin, is claimed to have distributed TL 137 million ($66 million) in bribes to the former economy, interior and EU affairs ministers, their sons and possibly to some other bureaucrats in order to cloak fictitious exports and money laundering. Süleyman Aslan, then head of Halkbank, a public bank, was also allegedly involved in corruption.

The media ban has been widely criticized by opposition parties and media organizations for eliminating freedom of information.

Erdal Aksünger, a CHP deputy and member of the corruption commission, harshly criticized the ban, which he said aims to conceal some information that is expected to put the government in a tight corner.

In a statement to Today’s Zaman, Aksünger said he would not have any objection to a ban on the content of the testimonies to be given by those accused of corruption. But to issue an all-encompassing ban on the commission’s work including reports about commission’s potential failure to convene or those members who fail to attend the commission’s meetings is unacceptable, he stressed.

“This means prevention of freedom of information; [which is] against the Constitution,” he said.

Altan Tan, a deputy from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said during a program on CNN Türk television channel on Wednesday that the ban aimed to keep the public in the dark about the corruption allegations.

“There are things the government wants to hide that it does not want to be spread [by the media],” he said.

The Press Council in Turkey said in a written statement on Wednesday that the bans would eliminate freedoms but not the truth. Maintaining that the Ankara 7th Court of Peace is not entitled to issue such a verdict, the statement said, “No all-encompassing verdict related to [something that will happen in] the future can be pronounced.”

The Turkish Journalists Association (TGC) has described the verdict as an attempt of censorship. “In democratic regimes, the press is free and cannot be subjected to censorship,” the TGC said in a written statement on Wednesday.

In documents previously sent by the İstanbul Prosecutor’s Office to Parliament, former ministers Çağlayan, Güler and Bağış are alleged to have accepted bribes.

A Twitter account behind a string of leaks in the corruption scandal posted in March what it presented as police files detailing graft allegations against four former ministers. The documents, if genuine, revealed bribes received from businessmen by the former ministers.

According to the leaked documents, the accusations leveled against Güler, Çağlayan and Bağış are compiled in a 299-page summary of proceedings. The summary against Bayraktar consists of 32 pages.

In the documents, Çağlayan is accused of accepting bribes 28 times amounting to $52 million. He stands accused of “establishing a criminal group for the purpose of committing crimes,” “conducting imports with fake documents” and “violating the Anti-Smuggling Law.”

In one of his phone conversations with Zarrab, which were legally wiretapped by the police and prosecutors involved in the corruption investigation, said the documents, the former minister is heard telling Zarrab to increase gold exports to Iran from Turkey.

Some of the suspects in the corruption investigation are estimated to have been engaged in oil-for-gold exchanges with Iran. It is suspected that some several tons of gold may have been traded with Iran for oil.

According to media reports last year, Turkey traded nearly 60 tons of gold for several million tons of Iranian crude oil despite its promises to observe Western sanctions on Iran’s energy sector. By using gold instead of money, Turkey was able to skirt Western sanctions on Iran’s oil trade, particularly those pertaining to SWIFT, the global money transfer service that until recently assisted the Central Bank of Iran and other Iranian financial institutions.

Zarrab, it turned out, had also financed AK Party surveys. Mehmet Sarı, press advisor to Çağlayan, reportedly said in his recent testimony before the corruption commission that Zarrab had spent TL 352,000 ($158,000) on a promotion campaign for Çağlayan last year.

In a wiretapped phone conversation, Zarrab is heard, according to previously published reports, instructing an employee called Abdullah to send money to a hotel. The money, Zarrab revealed, was for a survey for Çağlayan regarding a project in Mersin.

According to the summary of proceedings, Güler stands accused of accepting bribes 10 times amounting to $10 million. He is also accused of “establishing a criminal group with the purpose of committing crimes,” “abusing his authority” and “protecting the guilty.”

Bağış is accused of accepting three bribes amounting to $1.5 million.

According to the summary of proceedings, an investigation into Bayraktar began following a separate investigation into construction mogul Ali Ağaoğlu. In 2012, the Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs launched an investigation into a project known as “Maslak 1453,” which would be built by Ağaoğlu, after claims that the ministry had allocated part of Fatih Forest for the project. After realizing that its project would encounter problems, Ağaoğlu contacted then-Minister Bayraktar through his son, Abdullah Oğuz Bayraktar, to resolve the issue.

The document said Bayraktar helped Ağaoğlu undergo ministry inspections without any problems. The ex-minister did the same favor for other construction moguls as well, the document added. According to the document, the former minister illegally changed the zoning plans of some first-degree environmentally protected zones in İstanbul’s Ataköy, Kadıköy and Tuzla districts and opened them up to construction.

Bayraktar revealed on the phone to a live television program shortly after the probe went public that he did whatever he did as a minister under instructions from then-Prime Minister Erdoğan. After announcing his resignation, he said, “I believe the prime minister should also resign.”

Some of the major suspects in the corruption probes such as Zarrab, who is also a Turkish citizen, did not testify before the parliamentary investigation commission, which was established in early July.

The main office of an online newspaper in İstanbul, Karşı Gazete, was raided, at the end of September, by the police who asked the editors to remove a news story published online regarding graft allegations against the government.

“They overtly forced us to censor a [graft] story although they have not produced any court or prosecutor order to show us,” Emrah Direk, the editor-in-chief of the Karşı daily, told reporters following the police raid.

Since the graft probe, the government has the habit of introducing a media ban through the judiciary which is, as amply evidenced by numerous reports, highly under government control.

Courts last month also imposed gag orders for two cases in which five security forces were recently killed in the provinces of Hakkari and Bingöl by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

It has been widely claimed that the media ban was imposed to prevent the public from being informed that the real perpetuators of the killings have not been caught. The government said, shortly after the attacks, that the perpetrators had been seized.

A gag order was also issued in mid-June by an Ankara court on the media reporting on the seizure by Islamic extremists of Turkish diplomats and Special Operations Police from the country’s consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The government was heavily criticized for the ban and was also accused of censorship at the time.

In July, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said in response to a parliamentary question that 149 gag orders had been imposed by courts since the beginning of 2010. In the first half of 2014, the number of media bans courts introduced is 24.

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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