In Scandal, Turkey’s Leaders May Be Losing Their Tight Grip on News Media

In Scandal, Turkey’s Leaders May Be Losing Their Tight Grip on News Media

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled an investigative reporter who has published a number of leaked documents related to a widening corruption scandal a traitor. Mr. Erdogan’s lawyers have also filed suit against a newspaper columnist, once a reliable supporter of the prime minister, for his critical Twitter messages.

As the government has sought to purge the police force of officers involved in the corruption investigation, it has also gone after the news media, barring reporters from police departments and some critical journalists from traveling overseas with Mr. Erdogan. Yet none of these heavy-handed tactics has stanched the flow of leaks, including the publication, in some newspapers and on Twitter, of a document that was said to be a summons for Mr. Erdogan’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.

The constant public disclosures, mostly through fragments of investigatory files, have shocked many Turks accustomed to living under a government known for its ability to control the news media and silence dissent.

“We would never have expected anything like this,” said Numar Baki, a waiter at an Istanbul cafe, referring to the public nature of the scandal.

It is perhaps another sign, along with the resignations of several party officials and cabinet ministers, of what some analysts see as the slow erosion of what had been Mr. Erdogan’s iron grip on all levels of power within Turkish society.

Under Mr. Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has gained a reputation for harassing and intimidating the news media. More journalists are in jail in Turkey than anywhere else in the world, including China and Iran. The close relationship between Mr. Erdogan’s government and news media bosses has often meant that journalists need to toe the government line if they are to keep their jobs.

Many have not, however, and perhaps a greater hallmark of Mr. Erdogan’s treatment of the news media is not the number of journalists in jail but the number who have lost their jobs because of government pressure. During protests last spring and summer, for instance, nearly five dozen journalists were fired, according to one tally released by the main opposition party. But amid the current scandal, there are signs that Mr. Erdogan’s grip on the news media is slipping — or at least his ability to control the conversation — even as much of the mainstream news media continue to back the government.

In Turkey as elsewhere in the Middle East, the explosion of Internet-based media outlets has surpassed the ability of the government to control information completely. When Nazli Ilicak, a longtime journalist here, lost her job recently at the pro-government newspaper Sabah after emerging as a strong voice against the government’s handling of the corruption inquiry, she said she would simply keep up her criticism on Twitter and on independent websites.

“I have 500,000 followers,” she said in a recent television appearance. “That’s more than Sabah’s circulation.”

Meanwhile, a segment of the news media that at one time was seen as a reliable supporter of the government has turned on Mr. Erdogan. Followers of the Muslim spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, who is in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, have over the years secured top positions in the judiciary and the police and are said to be leading the corruption investigation. Several news media outlets are also affiliated with Mr. Gulen, and their coverage has been the most aggressive.

Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen had once been partners in an Islamist political alliance, and together they pushed the military from its dominant position in politics through several trials on charges of coup plotting. Those prosecutions were led by the Gulenists, and the Gulen-affiliated news outlets were the biggest cheerleaders for the cases. Now that same judiciary is targeting Mr. Erdogan.

The coverage of the corruption scandal showed no signs of abating on Saturday, with thousands protesting Mr. Erdogan and his ruling party in Ankara, the Turkish capital. News reports showed labor unionists holding signs saying, “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism” and “This is just the beginning. The struggle continues” — slogans like those raised during the antigovernment protests last May and June.

Only a few miles away, in Parliament, lawmakers threw fists, kicks, water bottles, handbags and at least one laptop at one another as they argued over a bill that would allow the government to gain more power over the judiciary. Video on CNN Turk showed men in suits stepping on chairs and tables and yelling. One opposition lawmaker was treated at a hospital after a tablet computer was thrown at his head, and the president of a judges’ association was kicked by a lawmaker from the governing party, CNN Turk reported.

One columnist, Mahir Zeynalov, who writes for Today’s Zaman, an English-language daily affiliated with the Gulen movement, was recently sued by Mr. Erdogan for posts on Twitter that according to the complaint, “committed a crime by exceeding the limit of criticism.” Mr. Zeynalov’s posts, though, have been mostly about news events and the corruption investigation, and it was unclear what the prime minister had found offensive.

“I think I should only tweet about penguins from now on,” Mr. Zeynalov wrote on Twitter after the case was filed, referring to some television channels’ practice of broadcasting a documentary about penguins last spring rather than reporting on the antigovernment protests.

So even as the flow of leaks seems beyond Mr. Erdogan’s control, the government is doing its best to make life difficult for journalists reporting aggressively on the corruption allegations. During the long-running military trials, known as the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, many of the most arresting details were reported by Mehmet Baransu, of the left-leaning daily Taraf.

Mr. Baransu, the investigative reporter in this drama, has published leaked documents and incriminating photographs of officials accepting bribes. He said he believed he was being closely monitored by the government, which has blocked his website.

“My phone is being tapped,” he said, “but I don’t care.”

Mr. Baransu said he was barred from appearing on the talk shows of many channels, and he criticized the mainstream news media for their soft coverage and failure to question Mr. Erdogan’s contention that the corruption investigation was the work of foreign conspirators.

“Erdogan wants to show that this is a conspiracy, that the United States and Israel are behind it,” he said. “Under no circumstances does he want to talk about corruption.

“No one on TV is asking: ‘Who put the money in the shoe boxes? Was it the C.I.A.?’ No one is asking these questions.”

For a long time he was assigned two police officers as security because he had faced a number of death threats. But recently, he said, the security was pulled, and he was told that two officers working from a station on the Asian side of Istanbul would be on standby. He lives and works on the European side.

“It’s really a difficult time right now, because the prime minister has publicly called me a traitor,” he said. But “more documents will come out, and we will keep writing about it.”

Ceylan Yeginsu and Sebnem Arsu

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