When Ankara’s mayor got wind of an opposition ad campaign that would hint at government corruption, he called an adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The adviser, Mustafa Varank, conferred with the Turkish premier in private, according to leaked tapes of his conversations with Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek, and came back with straightforward advice: don’t let the ads run.
Turkey’s opposition parties enter the run-up to March 30 local balloting with a dismal record against Erdogan, who has trounced them in five straight elections. Those contests haven’t always been fought on a level playing field, according to transcripts of phone records emerging from the graft scandal that has shaken the country since December. Turkey’s government describes them as faked or illegal wiretaps, while the tapes paint a picture of media manipulation in the government’s favor, as news broadcasts are cut and opinion polls fudged.
“You watch TV, and 95 percent of it is party political broadcasts for the AKP,” Erdogan’s party, said Huseyin Yener who was attending an anti-government rally surrounded by riot police in central Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Feb. 26. “When they show the leader of the opposition in the evening news, they’ll take the most innocuous quote and broadcast that.”
Gokcek said by e-mail on Feb. 27 that while he doesn’t deny the conversation happened, it had been spliced and certain parts omitted. He said the advertising agency got in touch to ask if it was legal to post billboards with political content before the election. Varank couldn’t be reached for comment at his office in repeated calls made since that date to a number provided by the premier’s office.
Unlike many European countries, Turkey lacks effective restrictions on the airtime given to political rivals during election campaigns, and doesn’t publish data on the subject. The Republican People’s Party, or CHP, the main opposition, says it’s not getting anything like its fair share.
Mustafa Sarigul, CHP candidate for Istanbul mayor, began a speech in Taksim on Feb. 26 with the accurate prediction that only two channels would broadcast it.
The previous day, in a meeting with his group in parliament, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu had played recordings that purport to be a conversation between Erdogan and his son about disposing of illicit funds. All the main news channels, including CNN-Turk, NTV and Haberturk, cut off their coverage when Kilicdaroglu said: “Now, let’s listen to those tapes.”
Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, the country’s third-largest, has also complained about his party’s lack of access to the media. Irritated by the video-camera lights at a rally last week, he told cameramen to turn them off because “you’re not broadcasting anyway,” according to the official Anatolia news agency.
“Every night they cut down the banners we put up,” Mustafa Sarigul, the opposition Republican People’s Party candidate for Istanbul mayor, said by e-mail on the day of his rally. Sarigul said he would be making a complaint about the practice to Aziz Pabuccu, the chairman of the AKP. “It must be fair race for both of us.”
The allegation of billboard bias was raised in parliament by Umut Oran, a CHP lawmaker, who submitted written questions to the government on Dec. 9. He said the billboards had been hired from the Stroer-Kentvizyon advertising agency, which had later warned the party against using them to criticize Erdogan.
Oran asked whether the government instructed Murat Ilbak, the chief executive officer of Stroer-Kentvizyon, to block the opposition ad campaign. Oran said that Ilbak was an old associate of the prime minister who won municipal billboard contracts when Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. The government hasn’t responded to Oran’s questions, and calls to Murat Ilbak’s office weren’t returned.
The government argues that success at the ballot box will vindicate its rejection of the corruption allegations, which have roiled markets as well as politics. Turkey’s benchmark stock index has been the world’s worst performer since the scandal broke on Dec. 17.
Last month, Erdogan cited a poll by research firm Konda he said showed 48 percent backing for his party. The premier has complained that some polling companies with ties to his political rivals have deliberately produced lower figures.
The credibility of Turkish opinion polls as locally reported, though, has been another casualty of the leaked tapes. One featured Fatih Altayli, editor-in-chief of Haberturk newspaper, discussing manipulating poll results with an executive at the paper, Fatih Sarac. “I could talk to the polling company about putting two more points on the BDP,” a Kurdish party, Altayli said. “We could take some off MHP, we could take some off the undecided - we’ll manipulate it.”
Altayli verified the authenticity of the tapes, but said they had been edited so that the broadcast portion was taken out of context. He said the paper didn’t ultimately publish manipulated results. Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, has a joint venture with Haberturk’s owner in Turkey, the BloombergHT financial news channel.
Other leaked recordings featured Erdogan calling Sarac with complaints about coverage -- conversations that began “Alo Fatih,” or “Hello, Fatih,” which has now become a catch-phrase in Turkey for government interference in media.
Erdogan acknowledges that he called Haberturk from Morocco last year, as the Gezi Park anti-government protests were raging in Istanbul, to ask them to stop airing “insults” against him by the opposition. “Yes I called,” he said at press conference in Ankara last month. “I just reminded them.”
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