RSF and CPJ reports show media freedom further crippled in Turkey

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Amid debates of government pressure on the media and unethical relationships between press and politicians in Turkey, recent reports by leading international journalist organizations show that Turkey’s negative record of press freedom has further deteriorated due to the treatment of journalists.

Zaman daily reporter Ahmet Dönmez asked Erdoğan three questions during his joint press conference with the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in Ankara on Tuesday evening. The questions related to the PM receiving bribes to allow the construction of villas in İzmir’s Urla district by changing zoning restrictions in a first-degree environmentally protected zone; creating a pool of funds raised by businessmen to purchase a media group for the government’s interests, in return for granting huge public tenders to the favor of these businessmen; and Erdoğan’s intervention in a TV station broadcasting to censor the speech of an opposition leader.

Appearing tense and stunned by the questions, Erdoğan took a swipe at the reporter, who received a hero’s welcome on social media for his questions at a time when practicing the basic components of journalism — asking questions — poses a tremendous risk for journalists in Turkey.

Erdoğan got on his soapbox without bothering to hide his anger and instead of responding to these questions directly, he defended himself by saying that these assertions were not claimed by everyone but only by a particular media group, while accusing the reporter of “being a voice of his bosses.” Erdoğan, however, refused to acknowledge that the questions were all based on the voice recordings and documents compiled in the investigation files by the state’s prosecutors in one and a half years of surveillance through court orders.

Erdoğan rejected accusations that he had any role in the construction of the villas on public land in Urla and said there is an ongoing trial concerning the issue. He strongly denied any wrongdoing while claiming that he has no link to the case as the villas had been constructed 35 years ago.

Land belongs to my friend

“That land belongs to one of my good friends and it is not on public property. First and foremost, I want you to know this fact. I have only gone there along with my family on brief vacations lasting three to five days each year over the past five years,” Erdoğan said, dismissing the accusations that he called for a change in the status of the area from a first-degree environmentally protected zone to a third-degree environmentally protected zone to allow the construction of the villas.

Despite Erdoğan’s dismissal of the claims, however, the voice recordings wiretapped on a court order in a corruption investigation clearly show Erdoğan’s family members’ involvement, even as far as the construction plans of the villas.

According to phone conversations in the investigation files, which were leaked to the media after the government’s move to stifle the probe processes by removing prosecutors in charge of the investigations, businessman Mustafa Latif Topbaş wanted to build eight villas near the village of Zeytineli in Urla, but was denied the permit as the area was a first-degree environmentally protected zone. The businessman asked the prime minister’s help to change the zone to a third-degree protected zone so that he could get the permits he needed. Erdoğan confirmed on the phone that he would help the businessman. The prosecutors, by analysing some other recorded conversations, have found out that the PM may have received two villas in return for the favor.

Bribing professors

In another phone conversation, General Director of the Protection of Natural Heritage Agency Osman İyimaya is heard suggesting to Topbaş that he appeal to an administrative court to reduce the degree of the protected zone. He advises asking university professors to prepare a report on the protected area. Recordings further reveal that İyimaya and five university professors were paid TL 130,000 to prepare a misleading report about the area, where the villas were erected on protected land.

Details of other phone conversations between the prime minister and Topbaş, as well as between Topbaş and the prime minister’s daughter Sümeyye, have made their way to the media. The conversations reveal that Erdoğan, talking with Topbaş, asks the businessman about the construction of the villas. In the conversation, which took place on Aug. 15, 2013, Erdoğan asked Topbaş to finish the villas soon. In the conversation between Sümeyye and Topbaş, the former tells the latter that she and her mother have taken a look at the construction plans of the villas and like two of them, but want to make some changes to the plans. Topbaş then told Sümeyye that he might visit the Erdoğan family at their residence later in the day to discuss their suggested changes, noting that such details should not be talked about on the phone. Erdoğan’s daughter suggested sending the details of the changes she wants through email but Topbaş rejects this too, pointing out the possibility that these emails can be intercepted.

Sümeyye defines bidet requirements

There are interesting details in the phone conversations between Sümeyye and Topbaş, such as when they were talking about digging the pool in front of the villas with a portable curtain for privacy, so that the pool will not be seen from the second floors of the villas. They also talk about installing two bathrooms and bidets in the restrooms of the bedrooms. In a later wiretap, the PM told Topbaş that there is no need for bidet and that a normal Turkish bathroom will be enough. These talks were evaluated by the prosecutors of the case as proof that Erdoğan did actually possess villas in the compound.

However, there are also more severe claims in the tapes concerning the villa construction scheme. The claims allege that Topbaş took advantage of almost every bureaucrat who could help him bypass legal hurdles to build the villas. In one of the conversations, Topbaş complains about then-İzmir Governor Mustafa Cahit Kıraç, who he said wanted to destroy the villas because they were being built on a high-priority protected zone. When Topbaş asks Erdoğan to call the İzmir governor to stop him from trying to block the construction of villas, Erdoğan grunted. Four months after the conversation, Kıraç was appointed governor of Diyarbakır.

Treasury land

At the press conference, the prime minister also rejected claims that one of the parcels of land on which these villas were built in fact belongs to the Treasury. However, the Zaman daily published a document on Tuesday that indicates that the province council of İzmir decided unanimously on Sept. 15, 2010, that three people: Hamdi Boyacı, Hayri Boyacı and Kadir Boyacı, should be fined TL 70,166 under Construction Law No. 3194 and Law No. 5302 for building on a plot of land owned by the Treasury.

İzmir Province General Assembly President Serdar Değirmenci said notifications concerning the demolition of the unlicensed buildings had been dispatched to the General Directorate of Real Estate (MEGM), also asking them to inform the public, particularly the people of İzmir, about the ruling.

Businessman Topbaş claims no misdeed in Urla villas

Businessman Mustafa Latif Topbaş sent a written statement to the press on Wednesday to reject claims of wrongdoing in the construction of villas on his land near the village of Zeytineli in İzmir’s Urla district, as well as a warehouse on another plot in which historical artifacts were discovered during excavation.

There had never been historical artifacts in Zeytineli, Topbaş said. According to the statement, Topbaş bought the piece of land 34 years ago with seven of his friends. They started constructing over 20 summerhouses, each with a maximum size of 80 square meters, for themselves and their workers, along with a mosque and barns that same year. Some 15 years ago, their land, like that of the villagers in neighboring areas, was declared a first-degree environmentally protected area, which they contested with the local administration.

Topbaş said he has a 35-year-long friendship with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and has hosted him and his family three times in the Zeytineli villas. He further rejected claims that the prime minister owns villas in the compound and clarified that discussions with Erdoğan’s daughter, which had been wiretapped, regarded changes in plans during the restoration of the buildings there.

Removing a news ticker

Erdoğan, in his answer to Dönmez’s question, acknowledged calling an executive of a mainstream news station while on an official visit to Morocco in June to order the removal of news ticker about Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli’s comments on the Gezi Park protests. He absolved himself of any wrongdoing, however, claiming that Bahçeli was hurling insults at him.

In an audio recording uploaded to YouTube last week, Erdoğan can be heard giving instructions by phone to Fatih Saraç, the vice president of the Ciner Media Group, to which the Habertürk news channel belongs, to remove a news ticker in which Bahçeli called on President Abdullah Gül to intervene and decrease the tension during the Gezi Park protests that rocked the country early last summer.

The audio recordings, posted on social media platforms by Twitter user “Haramzadeler,” have met with serious criticism from several political parties as well as the public. They amply demonstrate how far the prime minister goes in his efforts to control the media.

“This is very surprising. There is no need for such things [to be displayed on television],” Erdoğan told Saraç on June 4, 2013 in a phone call while on his official visit to Morocco. Saraç responded to Erdoğan, who was apparently vexed by the MHP leader’s comment that the president should intervene and thereby sideline the prime minister, “I will deal with it immediately, sir.”

Other recordings also uploaded by Haramzadeler, include conversations between Erdoğan and Saraç discussing the manipulation of opinion poll results to the detriment of the MHP; the dismissal of three reporters and a page designer for letting a news critical of the government’s public health policies appear in print; and not running stories about a botched airstrike in 2011 that killed 34 civilian smugglers in Uludere, near Turkey’s Iraqi border.

Funds collected to buy Turkuvaz Media Group

In answer to the third question posed by Dönmez, which concerned the claims of obligating some businessmen to contribute millions of dollars to create a pool of capital — in return for colossal public tenders — to be used to acquire the Turkuvaz Media Group, which includes the Sabah daily and the ATV channel among many others, Erdoğan said that there was no such fund. He said a company (Zirve Holding) stepped up for the purchase of the media group and later the founder of Zirve transferred his shares to his uncle’s company (Kalyon İnşaat). The prime minister said the members of the consortium winning the tender for the construction of the third airport (Cengiz, Kolin and Limak) sold some of their shares to enter the media business through Zirve. Erdoğan didn’t elaborate further.

 

However, Erdoğan’s defense doesn’t tally with the tapes and the documents in the investigation files, details of which were read by the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, from a summary of the investigation involving former Cabinet ministers allegedly involved in the graft scandal. The summary indicated that a total of $630 million had been collected from eight businesspeople on Erdoğan’s instructions in order to buy the Sabah Media Group, which Kılıçdaroğlu referred to as “plunder.”

The summary noted that Binali Yıldırım, the former minister of transportation, maritime affairs and communications, collected the money over a period of two months. Businessmen Mehmet Cengiz, Celal Koloğlu, Nihat Özdemir and İbrahim Çeçen each contributed $100 million to the $630 million pool. After reading the report, the CHP leader said that the total value of public tenders that have so far been granted to these same businessmen who had apparently been instructed to contribute to the pool is as much as $87.832 billion.

Özdemir: I gave $100 million for Turkuvaz Media purchase

Özdemir  confirmed that he did, in fact, provide this sum. In a telephone interview with Fox TV journalist İsmail Küçükkaya on Wednesday, Özdemir said he lent this money to Zirve Holding and that he didn’t have any share in Turkuvaz, the holdings of which include the Sabah daily and the ATV television channel. Özdemir argued that he actually got shares of the construction company of the new owners of Turkuvaz in return for the loan. He did not, however, provide the name of the construction company.

In the wiretapped recordings, Nihat Özdemir can allegedly be heard complaining to businessman Mehmet Cengiz about how badly he felt after he was asked to put money to the pool. “When I came to home, I wasn’t able to look anyone in the face, [even] my wife. I took my clothes off and went directly to bed. I woke up in the morning. Look, I have had enough of this. Yesterday was torture for me.

Spanish PM Rajoy: Everyone is equal before the law

At the same meeting journalists also directed questions to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy about the recent corruption scandal in Spain involving Princess Cristina. Rajoy said the case is currently the responsibility of the magistrates and that the princess, like every other citizen, has to defend her innocence and disprove the allegations made against her. Rajoy underlined that nobody has a privilege of being treated differently from others before the law. Dönmez also asked Rajoy about his assessment of a police raid in December of last year of Rajoy’s party headquarters as part of a corruption investigation. “Justice is for everyone, be it a political party or any individual. This is a prerequisite of the supremacy of law,” Rajoy said.

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