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.”