“Did I upset you, boss?” That’s how the owner of one of Turkey’s biggest media groups apparently began a telephone conversation with the country’s premier after his Milliyet newspaper published a story that displeased the leader, according to a wiretapping leaked earlier this month. In between verbal attacks by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the 75-year-old tycoon who owns 15 per cent of the country’s liquefied gas distribution market asks: “What would you like me to do?” Erdogan Demiroren breaks down in tears as the talk between the two men ends.
Leaked recording like this are increasingly compromising the Prime Minister’s leadership. An audio recording posted anonymously on YouTube exposed the intelligence chief, the foreign minister and other senior officials discussing a possible intervention in Syria.
The authenticity of the leaked conversations have yet to be verified, but the government’s successive decisions to try to ban social media sites indicate the extent to which Mr Erdogan is prepared to go to silence information escaping his control.
“I don’t understand how people of good sense could defend this Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There are all kinds of lies there,” Mr Erdogan had told supporters recently. Also lies, according to Mr Erdogan, are apparent recordings embroiling him and his entourage in a series of alleged corruption.
The administration has been sinking deeper into scandals that first emerged when the police arrested the sons of ministers, high-profile businessmen and politicians on corruption charges and illicit gold transactions with Iran. Mr Erdogan responded by reassigning thousands of policemen and prosecutors. The recordings purport to expose a conversation between Mr Erdogan and his son. In the first, the Prime Minister is heard telling his son not to accept a bribe from a businessman as the amount is too small, and the second orders him to hide millions of euros during a corruption investigation.
These blows come as Turkey gears up for municipal elections on Sunday, which are widely viewed as a referendum on Mr Erdogan’s 11 years in power. He is increasingly under pressure after the widening graft probe, a heavy-handed response to the protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park last summer and an economy that has begun to slow.
Earlier this month, Reporters without Borders published its 2014 World Press Freedom Index. Turkey ranks 154 of the 180 listed countries – below Afghanistan and Iraq. With 60 journalists in detention at the end of last year, the report calls Turkey one of the “world’s biggest prisons for media personnel”.
Human rights NGOs, which have been operating in Turkey for decades, say the administration will use all available means and legislation – ranging from defamation to anti-terrorism laws – to muzzle critical voices.
“The root of the [censorship] problem is the complete intolerance of dissent on behalf of the authorities,” said Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner. “They don’t like people advocating views that are radically different, and are intolerant to criticism which they view as an insult or form of defamation,” he said.
Mr Gardner points to the case of investigative journalists Ahmet Sik and Nesim Seker who were in pre-trial detention for a year before being prosecuted for their participation in what authorities called “terrorist crimes”. The evidence against them being a draft manuscript of an - at the time - unpublished book and a document outlining the strategy of Ergenekon - an alleged underground network of militarists seeking to overthrow the government in a coup.
When journalists aren’t prosecuted, they can be fired. In the past two years Milliyet alone has dismissed four reporters who had voiced criticism against the Prime Minister. Mehmet Altan was appointed chief editor of Star newspaper in 2006 but was removed in 2012 after his articles starting criticising the Prime Minister’s policies. “Before [the] ruling AKP party, the military controlled the media. Now it is the Prime Minister. The problem with Turkey is that the system doesn’t change – only people do,” said Mr Altan who now teaches economics at the University of Istanbul.
He also writes a column on a website based in Cyprus. “It’s very difficult to be independent in Turkey. It’s basically fascism here,” he said.
Opposition television channel Kanalturk said yesterday it had had its broadcasting licence removed a few days ago, while another channel will be barred from airing a show on the night of the elections. Fatih Karaca, head of the media unit of Ipek group of companies, the producer of Kanalturk, which is linked to a movement led by the US-based moderate Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, told the Associated Press that the decision “politically motivated.”
The overwhelming majority of media groups are in the grip of either the government or under the influence of Mr Gulen, a one-time ally of the leader but now Mr Erdogan’s bitter foe. Zaman, a leading newspaper, has close links to the Gulenists. This, observers claim, leaves the Turkish public with little choice.
“We are inspired by the ideas of the Hizmet [the philosophy of Fethullah Gulen] movement,” Celil Sagir, managing editor of the English-language version of Zaman told The Independent. “These are the values of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression and free-market economy and we will walk with whoever stands for these principles – a political party, a person, anyone – but our support will be for the principles, not for these entities.” The rift between Mr Erdogan and the Islamic scholar started early last year, and was exacerbated with the past summer’s brutal crackdown on protesters.
During last summer’s Gezi Park protests, local media initially turned a blind eye to the movement sparking the wrath of protesters. CNN Turkey, for example, showed a documentary on penguins as the protests raged. The channel’s officials apologised, saying it was “poor editorial judgement”.
But many in Turkey point to state pressure as the government’s control creeps into the judiciary and other authorities. In 2009, the independent media mogul Aydin Dogan – Turkey’s answer to Rupert Murdoch and owner of CNN Turk – was fined €4.5bn (£3.7bn) for alleged unpaid taxes. The audit came after Mr Dogan’s media empire publicised the Lighthouse charity scandal, when a German court convicted three Turkish men for siphoning off €18m.
Opposition at the time claimed the ruling AKP had also been involved, although the prosecutors found no evidence of that in Germany. While the company later appealed and settled for €1bn, the old rivalry between the media mogul and Mr Erdogan seems to be far from over.
In the leaked recordings, Mr Erdogan appears to admit that he ordered his former justice minister to make sure Mr Dogan was punished. The leader said his meddling in the judiciary was “natural”.
Recent legislation in Turkey has given the government greater control over the judiciary. Like many Turks, Mr Altan fears for his country’s future: “The government has tried to overturn the rule of law. This is a coup [in] our state.”