PM Erdoğan asks his man in Habertürk to censor Sarıgül

PM Erdoğan asks his man in Habertürk to censor Sarıgül

Mustafa Sarıgül, the candidate of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) for İstanbul mayor, returns to his party after being outside for several years. (Photo: Today's Zaman)

February 18, 2014, Tuesday/ 00:04:00/ TODAY'S ZAMAN

A new voice recording leaked by Twitter user Haramzadeler reveals Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan instructing a top manager of the media group that owns the Habertürk news channel and daily to cut news about main opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) İstanbul mayoral candidate Mustafa Sarıgül.

Erdoğan is heard complaining that Sarıgül is receiving too much coverage. Sarıgül was finalizing his return to the CHP at the time, after years of being outside the party. Erdoğan is heard telling Fatih Saraç, deputy chairman of the Ciner Media Group, that the Habertürk news channel and daily were giving Sarıgül too much time and asked that it be stopped.

Erdoğan questioned Saraç if news stories in favor of the CHP İstanbul mayoral candidate were because of the fact that Turgay Ciner, the owner of the Ciner Media Group, had married the daughter of Hüsamettin Özkan, a former deputy chairman of the Democratic Left Party (DSP), an offshoot of the CHP. Özkan is rumored to be lending support for Sarıgül's campaign.

During the phone conversation, Erdoğan claimed that Habertürk was trying to polish Sarıgül's image so as to help catapult him to the top of the CHP, but Saraç disagreed with the prime minister's commentary and pledged to do his best to give Sarıgül less airtime on TV and coverage in the paper. Saraç even said they were trying to give wider publicity to Gürsel Tekin, a CHP İstanbul deputy who is speculated to be at odds with Sarıgül's venture to run for İstanbul mayor.

The revelation is the latest in a series of voice recording leaks that point to Erdoğan's meddling in the media on an almost daily basis in an attempt to influence public opinion. They are reportedly from legally kept files of an investigation that was stalled when the police refused to comply with the orders of the prosecutor, whom the government dismissed and reassigned to a less important position.

When Saraç first denied Erdoğan's claims about too much coverage of the CHP's candidate for İstanbul, Erdoğan is heard telling him that he follows Habertürk and other newspapers daily and also watches news channels, both of which lead him to the conclusion that the daily runs too many articles on Sarıgül.

The recent leak exposes the scale of Erdoğan's intrusion into media affairs, a development that bodes ill for Turkish democracy and press freedom as journalists continue to complain about deteriorating working conditions in the Turkish media.

His leaked phone conversations have lent a new term to Turkish political jargon, the “Alo Fatih hotline,” which stands for the prime minister's exertion of influence to manipulate the editorial policy of some press outlets through appointments from among his reliable men.

The latest leak was the seventh in a chain of revelations involving Erdoğan and Saraç. Previous conversations had stirred huge controversies and reactions among public opinion about the extent of media independence and freedom of expression, and the unfortunate situation of the political opposition, which can hardly find space for itself in the media. The disclosures exposed the government's utter intolerance for the coverage of the opposition, and its direct involvement in the editorial decision-making procedures of dailies and TV channels to censor views critical of the government's actions.

In one of the leaked phone conversations, Erdoğan admonishes Saraç for running a news ticker on Habertürk TV about a call made by the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, to President Abdullah Gül, suggesting that he take concrete steps rather than merely having talks with representatives of the Gezi Park protesters. Calling from Morocco, where he was on an official visit, Erdoğan ordered Saraç to remove the ticker immediately. During the Gezi protests of last summer, the prime minister opted to escalate tensions by adopting tough rhetoric against the demonstrations, including labeling protesters as proxies of an "interest rate lobby" or as gangs seeking to terrorize society, and also by using disproportionate police force to quell the protests, which only worked to spread the protests across Turkey. In a press conference last week, Erdoğan admitted to having ordered Saraç to remove the ticker, but defended his action, saying this banner was clearly insulting him.

In another phone call, also revealed by Haramzadeler, Erdoğan came down on Saraç for airing a press conference in which Bahçeli reprimanded the government's policies. Saraç was home and said he wasn't watching TV at the moment, but that he would take the necessary action immediately, after offering several apologies. In the following comments, Saraç is heard telling an official of the channel to stop the broadcast of Bahçeli.

In a third conversation, also wiretapped by the prosecutor under court order, Saraç and Habertürk Editor-in-Chief Fatih Altaylı spoke about manipulating the results of a poll to the detriment of the MHP.

Altaylı, exasperated with the criticism, attended a televised discussion hosted by a well-known journalist, in which he confessed that there is tremendous government pressure on the media and that he was actually standing against it. “Today, the dignity of journalism is being crushed. Instructions come down from somewhere [in the government] every day. Everybody is afraid [of losing their job],” he said.

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