Tapes that could change politics and the media

Tapes that could change politics and the media

One after another, almost on a daily basis, Turkish politics is being rocked by new telephone wiretaps on government and business figures. The leak of the recordings shows the level of the conflict between Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident moderate Islamist scholar who was his close ally until a few months ago.

The latest was allegedly about a series of conversations between the PM and his son, Bilal Erdoğan, on Dec. 17, 2013, right after prosecutors and police started searching the houses of suspects, including the former interior minister’s son, and taking them into custody as a part of a major graft investigation.

As soon as the tape was leaked to the Internet on the evening of Feb. 24 (receiving more than a million hits on YouTube within a few hours), Erdoğan called for an emergency security meeting at his office in Ankara. The Prime Ministry issued a statement denying the authenticity of the tape and denouncing it as an “edited” piece.

Simultaneously, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called for his own executive meeting, also consulting sound engineers to check the authenticity of the leaked tape “in order not to be trapped,” as one CHP source said.

After the meeting, the CHP demanded Erdoğan’s resignation, without giving much of a clue about the content of the meeting. Perhaps as a reflection of the general mood in the Turkish media, mainstream TV stations and websites gave the CHP’s demand and government’s denial without even mentioning what they were actually about.

That was still the mood in many (not all) front page stories of Turkish mainstream papers on the morning of Feb. 25.

The first public break of the content was from Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). He said in a written statement that he understood from the tapes that the PM and his son seemed to be “involved in large amounts of bribery,” in which the euro and dollar equivalent of 2.2 billion liras was in question. Bahçeli claimed “the father and son” were trying to carry the money from the house to somewhere else, in panic, in order not to face the same consequences as the other names in the probe.

Erdoğan took the floor of his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) parliamentary group in fury. He denounced the tapes as “dubbed,” part of an “ill-mannered scenario” and part of the Dec. 17 “coup attempt” against him. In another part of his speech, he said that those who had set up this scenario might have cracked encrypted secure lines belonging to the government, using the capabilities of TUBİTAK, Turkey’s scientific and technological research body.

He accused Gülen, without directly giving his name, but called him the “ring leader.” He accused the CHP and the MHP of trying to seek political advantage out of this “attack” on him.

When it was Kılıçdaroğlu’s turn to address his CHP parliamentary group, there were three questions in mind: Would he play the tapes? Would Parliament TV broadcast it (as it was supposed to by regulations)? Would mainstream news stations dare to rebroadcast it?

When Kılıçdaroğlu started to talk, all three main private news channels, CNN Türk, NTV and Habertürk started to broadcast it live, though with some time delay, indicating their reluctance. However, when he started to play the recording, (which he called “as real as Mount Ararat”), all three cut their broadcasts.

Parliament TV then cut, too. When the CHP leader was finished with the tapes, first CNN Türk, then the other two, started to broadcast it again. They then withdrew again, letting people imagine what kind of problems their newsrooms might have been experiencing during the speech.

Before calling on Erdoğan to either “leave the country, or resign” Kılıçdaroğlu made a call to “media bosses” in order not to try to “silence the voice of opposition,” otherwise people would perceive them as being part of the committed crime.

I have no evidence to understand whether those recordings are fraudulent or “as real as Mount Ararat,” but they seem to have had an accelerating effect in Turkey’s already quickly changing political scene, and perhaps in its media scene too.