Wine bottles a step too far for Turkish pop music video

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The Independent Online

As clips go, it looks inoffensive: scenes of men dancing jigs in a dark, water-filled basement, interspersed with shots of a crowded dinner table studded with bottles of wine.

But when the Turkish pop singer, Aslizen Yentu, sent the promotional video for her first album to the country's top music station, she was told the shots of an alcohol-laden dinner table had to go, although such a ban has no basis in Turkish law. "I thought it was a joke," she says. "The album is called Cheers. The song is a Greek tavern song. Was I supposed to sip yoghurt drink?"

Her arguments cut no ice. When Kral TV broadcast the clip this month, only the jigs remained, plus shots of Yentu on a red divan. Kral TV officials were unavailable to comment. But RTUK, Turkey's broadcasting watchdog, is working on a draft bill that would ban scenes "encourag[ing]" consumption of alcohol.

The plans, leaked in the new year, caused outrage but the watchdog said it was merely bringing Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership, in line with EU norms. The draft bill clearly has many supporters. Nearly half of the complaints the watchdog had last year were from viewers upset at what they considered alcohol's excessive visibility on television. Yet critics say European alcohol regulations pertain to advertising, not broadcasting. For them, the regulation epitomises the AKP government's worrying turn towards religious populism.

"Drink was always an issue for conservative opinion, but no government paid attention to it," says Mehmet Ali Birand, a prominent commentator. "Now the AKP seems to be saying, 'Let's give them a hand'."

Last week, 20 bar-owners in Diyarbakir went to court after the governor gave them a month to move to a district on the city's outskirts. Government efforts to create "red streets" for bars were thrown out by the courts in 2005, they say. Turkey's wine industry is also struggling, after a 400 per cent rise in taxes since the AKP came to power in 2002.

An Islamic-rooted party whose leaders are teetotal, AKP has won international plaudits for its pragmatic reformism. But its ham-fisted efforts to end bans on headscarves in universities have polarised this most secular of Muslim countries.

Savagely criticised by the secular media, the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, said: "You print pictures of totally naked women in newspapers against this nation's moral values. Have we interfered with that?"

Hakan Yavuz, author of a book on Turkish Islam, said: "I fear that what we have here is the beginning of a major... change against secular lifestyles, a gradual profound Islamisation of society." He believes the process could prove difficult to stop.