Media and the Corruption Scandal
The murky dealings between media and politics in Turkey surfaced again in December 2013 in the midst of a corruption scandal which opened up a web of intrigue involving Prime Minister Erdoğan, members of his government and his family and a long – standing rivalry with a former political ally now in exile.
The scandal broke when Prime Minister accused senior police officers and judges engaged in a widespread investigation into corruption, which led to the arrests of prominent businessmen and sons of cabinet members, of taking part in what amounted to an attempted “judicial coup.”
He promptly closed the investigation down and reassigned prosecutors and judges and thousands of police officers. His action provoked a flood of leaked court documents to journalists not in the pocket of the government and led to a new confrontation with media that, for the first time since the Gezi protests, again tested the capacity of journalists to report freely.
As the government resorted to heavy-handed tactics to staunch the flow of devastating allegations in the media about corruption in the government, the Prime Minister called investigative reporter Mehmet Baransu a traitor for publishing documents related to the scandal and ordered his lawyers to file a legal case against a newspaper columnist for his critical Twitter messages.(31)
But the strong-arm response of the government did not succeed. In some newspapers and on Twitter, a document emerged that was said to be a summons for Erdoğan’s son to appear for questioning, and reports on the discovery of $4.5 million in cash stuffed in shoe boxes at the home of a director of a state bank.
Behind the row is a festering dispute between Erdoğan and his United States based rival and Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. Erdoğan accuses this former political ally of using his influence in the police, judiciary, and some sections of media to mount a malevolent public campaign and judicial investigation to destabilise the government. Like many issues in Turkish political life the rivalry between Erdoğan and Gülen is a complex mix of shadowy politics in which none of the players has much to commend them.(32)
In fact, it’s a choice between pest and cholera, according to journalist Ahmet Sik who was jailed in 2011 for writing a book on how Gülen’s movement has indeed infiltrated the police and the law enforcement community as Erdoğan claims. Şık doesn’t argue that the purge by Erdoğan of Gülenists in powerful positions means he is right. “There is also a real witch-hunt going on. We have massive corruption on the one hand, but the investigation against it also violates democratic and judicial principles. It’s a choice between a rock and a hard place, pest and cholera. One is not better, or cleaner, than the other.”(33)
So-called “Gülenist” newspapers such as Zaman and Bugun, which in the past have been sympathetic to Erdoğan’s AKP reported lurid allegations, including pictures of cash stuffed in shoe boxes as well as damaging telephone recordings between businessmen and Erdoğan’s associates. At the same time, the pro-government media including newspapers like Sabah, Star and particularly Yeni Safak portrayed the corruption investigations as a plot against Erdoğan.
The row has also shed further light on the profoundly unhealthy relations between government, business and media. On February 3rd 2014 leaked recordings of phone calls between Erdoğan, some of his minsters and leading businessmen were raised in parliament by the opposition party CHP who accused the government of bribery over the sale of the pro-government daily newspaper Sabah and ATV television.(34)
The government was accused of bribing a group of businessmen in August 2013 and offering tenders for major public contracts to make up their losses if the media sale went ahead. The consortium concerned – involving the Cengiz, Kolin and Limak companies – had already bagged a 22.1 billion Euro public contract to build Istanbul’s third airport earlier in the year.
The sale of Sabah, which was eventually bought in December 2013 by Kalyon, a construction group with major government contracts, typifies the way ownership structures in the Turkish media landscape are designed to support political and business interests.
Indeed, this proposed sale was already on the radar of corruption investigators and was one of the issues being looked at by judges when the prosecutor concerned was removed from office as part of the purge of police and judicial officers launched by Erdoğan in December.
(32) The Gülen movement has been a significant actor in the arena of politics in Turkey since the 70s and has managed to increase its influence over the years. The movement grew in size and is thought to have a certain level of control over education, the judiciary and the police. With the rise of the AKP and Erdoğan’s increasing power, Gülen had also found an ally. However, increasing dissatisfaction on both sides, has seen the erosion of the mutual support between the AKP and the Gülen movement. This division became increasingly public after the Gezi protest.
(33) Reported in Daily News, February 1st