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Corruption scandal and its fallout settle uneasily in Erdogan’s Turkey

Without an independent media, Turkey’s democracy might not be in good shape, writes Piotr Zalewski.

Editorial graphic for Jan.11/14 paper
Editorial graphic for Jan.11/14 paper

On the night of June 1, 2013, as anti-government protests in Istanbul reached fever-pitch, a number of mainstream Turkish television channels, facing the most important political event of the summer, baulked, ducked and ran for cover. Instead of broadcasting images of tens of thousands of men and women squaring off against riot police – footage that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have found objectionable – CNN Turk aired a documentary about penguins. Turks, especially those out on the streets that night, seethed. By the following morning, the penguin had become the symbol of everything – intimidation, sycophancy and self-censorship – that was wrong with Turkey’s mainstream press.

Six months later, a corruption scandal is shaking the foundations of Mr Erdogan’s power even more violently than the summer protests and laying bare the disease hounding the Turkish media.

On the morning of December 17, Turkey awoke to a political earthquake. In a series of raids, police officials detained dozens of bigwigs, including the sons of three cabinet ministers, the mayor of one of Istanbul’s biggest boroughs, the general manager of Halkbank, a state bank, several prominent businessmen, and a number of civil servants. A series of corruption, bribery and tender rigging investigations conducted in secret for more than a year had just borne their first fruit.

If the sequence of events that followed were ever turned into a novel, critics would describe its plot as badly contrived.

Within days of the first arrests, ruling party officials, including Mr Erdogan, described the corruption investigation as a coup d’état hatched by an erstwhile ally – an Islamic order known as the Gulen movement, and a cabal of foreign powers, media bosses and something called the “interest rate lobby”. Bent on weeding out the Gulenists from the bureaucracy, the government then had several hundred police officials, including the chief of the Istanbul bureau, replaced or fired. A new graft investigation, said to involve even more prominent suspects than the first, was aborted when the prosecutor in charge was removed from the case. Appalled at what they and many observers came to view as a government cover-up, five deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) resigned. The Gulenists’ spiritual guru, the elderly Fethullah Gulen, weighed in with an impassioned sermon in which he cursed those “who don’t see the thief but go after those trying to catch the thief”, imploring God “to bring fire to their houses, ruin their homes [and] break their unity”.

If the new scandal has lacked anything, it is its very own “penguin moment”. Still, something approaching it arrived on December 25, the day that the three cabinet members whose sons are suspected of graft tendered their resignations. Two of the three, Muammer Guler and Zafer Caglayan, who were respectively responsible for interior affairs and the economy, announced their departure by way of a formal statement, without admitting any wrongdoing. The third refused to go quietly. In a phone conversation aired live on NTV, a leading channel, Erdogan Bayraktar, in charge of environment and urban planning, implicated his boss in the scandal. The prime minister, he claimed, had approved the “majority of the construction plans” mentioned in the corruption investigation. “I want to express my belief that the esteemed prime minister should also step down,” he said.

Having just been handed the hottest news of the day on a plate, NTV evidently found it too hot to handle, and dropped it.

Without so much as batting an eyelid, much less reiterating what just happened, the news anchor fielding Mr Bayraktar’s call casually proceeded to cover the day’s other events, including a pre-New Year’s Eve crackdown on illegal alcohol sales at Istanbul restaurants. The channel’s online story on Mr Bayraktar’s resignation removed any reference to his call for Mr Erdogan to step down. Other news outlets, including the state-run Anadolu Agency, did likewise.

Other pro-government newspapers followed Mr Erdogan’s lead and went fishing for conspiracy theories. On December 21, three of them accused the United States ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, of masterminding the corruption investigation. “Get out of this country,” read a headline in Yeni Safak, right next to the ambassador’s photograph.

Meanwhile, newspapers loyal to the Gulenists, now openly at war against Mr Erdogan’s government, strayed towards the other extreme, faithfully reprinting every leak and allegation connected to the ongoing case. Having toed the AKP’s line for nearly a decade, the Gulen media, which tolerates no criticism of Gulen himself, conveniently reduced the definition of objectivity and editorial independence to hostility towards Mr Erdogan.

Overall, however, the mainstream media have been having a field day. Ever since news of the corruption scandal first broke, transcripts of wiretapped conversations between real estate moguls and local councilmen, evidence of rigged tenders, and photos purporting to show couriers dropping off bags of money at government offices, have run on the pages of most newspapers. Some have already begun paying the price: 12 Turkish dailies, including some of the country’s largest, were denied accreditation for Mr Erdogan’s official trip to Japan, Singapore and Malaysia at the start of January.

The problem is that a large share of the allegations aired by prosecutors for the past three weeks have not exactly come as a surprise to many Turkish journalists. In a country where construction is one of the key engines of growth, the existence of a patronage system that rewards developers close to the government, and the opaque tendering process that helps it run smoothly, have been common knowledge for years. What has prevented Turkish reporters from exposing it is not only censorship, be it government- or self-imposed, but the very structure of media ownership. With only a few exceptions, most Turkish newspapers and television channels are owned by and beholden to the same companies – nearly all of them involved in construction – that rely on government contracts to generate billions of dollars in revenue. In such an environment, journalists are hard-pressed to look into cases of bribery or corporate malpractice. Investigative journalism has become most conspicuous by its absence.

In the 2013 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, Turkey placed 154th worldwide, six places down from 2012, and trailing the likes of Iraq, Russia and Zimbabwe.

One reason has to do with the sheer number of journalists behind bars: the Committee to Protect Journalists recently named Turkey the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the second straight year, just ahead of Iran and China. Another reason has to do with the lesson learnt from the corruption investigation and its fallout.

If citizens have no choice but to rely on an occult faction of the judiciary rather than an independent media to expose graft and high-level corruption, Turkey’s democracy might not be in good shape.

Piotr Zalewski is a freelance writer living in Istanbul

On Twitter: p_zalewski