Nazli Ilicak stepped on one too many toes. The admired veteran journalist, who worked for years at the daily newspaper Sabah, received a laconic message last week from the editor-in-chief informing her that their professional relationship was at an end. The reason given was “a clash of ideas,” but the real reason for the dismissal was Ilicak’s criticism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for dragging his feet in the major corruption affair that’s causing an upheaval in Turkey these days. Ilicak also called on ministers suspected of involvement in the affair to resign.
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According to the suspicions, the sons of three ministers – of the interior, the economy, and the environment and urban planning – together with about 40 businessmen and heads of large Turkish companies, including the CEO of the state Bank Halk, offered bribes to win government tenders worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and to receive permits to build in areas where construction is prohibited.
According to testimony leaked to newspapers in Turkey, there is a recording that supposedly proves a senior minister received a bribe of $1.5 million from an Iranian businessman who also obtained Turkish citizenship for several foreign citizens. In the home of the bank’s CEO, police discovered $4.5 million hidden in shoe boxes. The affair, which is growing in scope, soon began taking a political toll.
Erdogan went into battle. The revelation of such an investigation three months before the local elections is the last thing he needs. As usual, he accused his political rivals, and mainly the head of the large Islamic social movement, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Philadelphia, of leaking details of the investigation to the media.
For several months the two have been waging a public battle in light of the penetrating criticism leveled against Erdogan by Gulen, the prime minister’s former ally. Erdogan’s “associates” even hinted in the media that the U.S. administration also stands behind the exposure of the story, the purported objective being to undermine Erdogan politically. The Americans reacted harshly to the claim, hastening to explain that they have no connection to the affair. A senior administration official even told Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News: “Don’t involve us in your family quarrels.”
But Erdogan, who has long suspected that the top echelons of the Turkish police and intelligence services are filled with Gulen’s “agents,” exploited the exposure of the affair to dismiss 18 senior officers, including the commander of the Istanbul police, who was ousted last Wednesday. The city’s deputy chief prosecutor general, who was in charge of the investigation, was also replaced. The case was transferred to the head prosecutor, who is close to Erdogan.
These steps enraged the prime minister’s critics. They suspect that the moves were designed to whitewash the findings and save Erdogan from even greater embarrassment. That is why there is an urgent need in Turkey to protect those who are disseminating the criticism and not allowing the story to fade away. As usual, these are the journalists, who in any case are considered traitors by Erdogan if they don’t write in praise of him and his government.
Ilicak, who on many issues actually expressed support for the government and its head, is not Erdogan’s first journalist victim. Her colleague at the newspaper and its former ombudsman, Yavuz Baydar, was dismissed last July after the paper refused to publish two of his articles criticizing the government’s crackdown of on the Gezi Park protests. Also dismissed were senior journalists with the newspaper Milliyet. Fortunately for those who were fired, they didn’t join the approximately 40 journalists who have been imprisoned for quite a while - a number that places Turkey, for the second year in a row, in first place on the list of countries that send journalists to prison, ahead of Iran and China.
Erdogan doesn’t even have to ask the owner of the newspaper Sabah to fire the wayward journalists. Ahmet Calik owes part of his fortune to Erdogan, who intervened with the government-controlled banks so they would give Calik a $750-million loan to purchase the Sabah group. Also, the man in control of the conglomerate’s media company is Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law.
To eliminate any doubt, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag announced his intention to file a lawsuit against all those who revealed details of the affair - “whether they are officials, prosecutors or police,” he said. Bozdag added: “We’re a large family, and until today we have never whitewashed the mistakes of family members and we haven’t permitted anyone to whitewash them.”
‘Like crime families’
In Turkey they’re saying that the expression “family” is actually quite appropriate. “It’s reminiscent of the behavior of the crime families that control not only the streets but also the police, the courts and politics. Erdogan’s life has become difficult, just at the moment when he estimated that his political future was assured,” wrote columnist Semih Idiz in Hurriyet.
The prime minister continues to show self-confidence, and is using belligerent rhetoric to harm his rivals. But the scandals gradually piling up, the hasty political and diplomatic statements accompanying them, the resignation of two senior party members and the criticism of Erdogan at home may cost his Justice and Development Party a steep political price this time around. It turns out that Erdogan, who promised to bring new politics to the country, free of dirty tricks and corruption, is up to his neck in a political swamp.