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Turkey’s Leaky Ship of State

Turkish riot police use a water cannon to disperse protesters during a demonstration against new legislation tightening control of the Internet on February 22, 2014 in istanbul. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish riot police use a water cannon to disperse protesters during a demonstration against new legislation tightening control of the Internet on February 22, 2014 in istanbul. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

Haters of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have had fun over the past few weeks. Almost every day, a recording of a new phone tap appears somewhere online to open yet another dingy little window onto the behavior of those close to power.

There have been the “pool” conversations, in which a group of businessmen discuss their efforts to raise 600 million US dollars to help the government buy a media group in return for a lion’s share of state tenders. There has been the conversation between former Interior Minister Muammer Güler and his son Barış on the day the police came to take the latter in for questioning on suspicion of corruption. (MG: What have you got at home, son? BG: Nothing, dad. MG: How much money? BG: My own money, a few bits and pieces. MG: How much money? BG: You know the answer to that! MG: How much son? BG: Roughly 1 million lira [about 460,000 dollars]. That’s all.)

And then you’ve got the now notorious “Hello, Fatih” conversations—seven of them to date—which chart the difficult relationship of Fatih Saraç—a businessman with no editorial experience who was put in charge of the mainstream media company Habertürk at the end of 2012—with his political masters. Here is an excerpt of a conversation Mr. Erdoğan has since confirmed having with Saraç in July last year about coverage of a press conference given by the head of a nationalist party, the AKP’s only serious competitor for the right-wing vote.

Erdoğan: Fatih, are you watching the press conference on at the moment . . . [Throughout the conversation, the prime minister speaks quietly, never raising his voice]

Saraç: I can get them to cut . . .

Erdoğan: What is the matter with you, Fatih! You don’t have a clue what you are doing. The guy is talking as if Turkey is going down the pan and [the channel] is showing it all live, for God’s sake . . .

Saraç: I’ll get it cut in a couple of minutes, sir. OK.

Erdoğan: What sort of work is this? It has been going on for a . . .

Saraç: But sir . . .

Erdoğan: Fifteen to 20 minutes, 20 minutes, 25 minutes.

Saraç: OK, sir. I’m getting them to cut it. I’ll tell them.

Erdoğan: It’s disgraceful. It’s outrageous. The guy’s insulting us. From the moment he started he’s been insulting us.

The editor of the Habertürk daily newspaper, Fatih Altaylı, went on television the day after and angrily acknowledged the extent of government pressure. “The honor of journalism is being trampled underfoot,” he said. “Every day orders rain down from somewhere . . . Everybody feels fear. What has happened is solid proof of what has always been known.” In November 2011, he had told the daily Hürriyet there was no government pressure on the media, and that only people with “extreme views” said there was.

Some commentators have described Altaylı’s TV appearance as a historic breach of media omertà. But the belief it will change anything seems excessively optimistic. If there is one lesson to be drawn from the whole phone tapping affair and its aftermath, it is that things look set to get worse, not better.

Phone tapping, bugging, and keeping files on people have long played a central role in Turkish public affairs. The military kept files on well over a million Turks at the time of the 1980 coup. Military intelligence used phone taps in the media campaign it orchestrated to run an Islamist government out of power after 1997. Police intelligence used them as part of the media campaign to undermine the power of the military after 2007, and the massive indictments of scores of people accused (and convicted) of plotting to overthrow the AKP after 2003 were full of lengthy transcriptions of tapped telephone conversations. The assumption is that the people responsible for uploading the current crop of phone taps are among the thousands of police officers removed from their positions as part of a government crackdown on supporters of Hizmet, a neo-Sufi sect powerful in state service.

It would be possible to tell the story of recent Turkish political history as the story of the struggle to control the state’s spying apparatus. As the journalist Murat Yetkin pointed out in an article on February 22, police intelligence grew because Turkey’s civilian leaders couldn’t depend on intelligence provided by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), which was run by the military.

As Yetkin also points out, tensions between the government and Hizmet can be traced back to the government’s move in 2011 to transfer military intelligence’s highly sophisticated electronic intelligence facilities to a newly civilianized MİT controlled by Mr. Erdoğan’s right-hand man. The move would have permitted—among other things—the government to begin surveillance of Hizmet supporters in police intelligence.

For political commentator İsmet Berkan, the problem—beyond a long Turkish tradition of state impunity—lies in the lack of control over who taps what. Turkish law specifies that conversations not related to a criminal investigation should be destroyed, but there is no structure in place to ensure that this ever actually happens. And while everybody knows it happens, no police or intelligence officer has ever been prosecuted for tapping a phone without the permission of a court.

The pity for Turkey is that rather than creating stricter guidelines for the use of phone tapping and confidential information, the government appears determined to give almost complete impunity to those using it, as long as they are on the government’s side. On December 19, two AKP MPs presented parliament with a draft law that would broaden MİT’s rights to monitor individuals, and give it more or less a carte blanche to demand and use information of any type from banks, financial institutions, hospitals, schools, as well as from the police and military police.

As Murat Yetkin points out, the plans to enlarge MİT’s sway over the different branches of the police make some sense. Turkey has suffered in the past from divisions between the different arms of its intelligence services.

The problem is that the draft law would also put MİT pretty much beyond the law. After February 2012, when prosecutors attempted to question the head of MİT, the prime minister made any future investigation of him dependent on his personal agreement. Under the new draft law, MİT will be able to block the investigation of any of its employees by stating that they were following orders. The law also proposes a three-year prison term for the owner of any newspaper that prints an MİT document.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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Nicholas Birch

Nicholas Birch lived in Istanbul, Turkey, from 2002 to 2009, working as a freelancer. His work—mainly from Turkey and Iraq—has appeared in a range of publications, including the Washington Post, Time Magazine, the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. He was a stringer for the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London until the end of 2009. He now lives in London.

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