In a blatant abuse of his authority, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan secretly ordered that an advertising campaign sponsored by the main opposition political party be blocked by instructing the local mayor to unlawfully stymie it with made-up excuses.
According to secret wiretap records obtained by Nordic Monitor, Erdoğan’s chief advisor Mustafa Varank, who is now the minister for industry and technology, communicated with then-Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek to insure the obstruction of a billboard campaign that was planned by the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Turkish investigators secured a wiretap warrant from a judge in Istanbul on November 22, 2013 to eavesdrop on the conversations of Varank as part of a year-long probe into a major corruption network that involved senior government officials. In the phone call that took place on December 6, 2013 at 20:46 hours, Mayor Gökçek informed Varank he had obtained advance copies of the CHP advertisements that were to run in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir and that they would criticize the Erdoğan government.
The CHP had already reserved for billboards through a contractor, Stroer-Kentvizyon, which coordinates the lease of billboards on behalf of the Ankara municipality. The company panicked when they saw copies of the ads to be placed on the billboards, fearing the risk of losing its account with the municipality, which was run at the time by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). They alerted the mayor and asked for guidance.
The ads read, “If citizens pay their taxes, then the government should account for its actions as well,” featuring various people in its three versions.
Secret wiretap record that details the first phone conversation about stopping the opposition’s political campaign:Varank_gokcek2
When the company sought to reject the CHP posters, the main opposition party asked for a written notice with an explanation. Under pressure from the largest opposition party, Gökçek counseled Yalçın Akdoğan, Erdoğan’s confidant who later became a deputy prime minister in his government, on how to proceed. The two agreed to reject the ads or place them in remote sections of the city if they were forced to run it. However that plan collapsed when the contract turned out to be explicit in designating the places where the ads would run.
The CHP was preparing for the March 30, 2014 elections and wanted to run ads to score points against Erdoğan’s party and attempt to shape public opinion. Although any party can purchase political ads for billboards through the contractor, the Erdoğan government was keen on not providing a level playing field for its opponents during the election campaign.
Although he was closely aligned with Erdoğan, Gökçek was concerned about losing his position. He warned Varank that the CHP could escalate the issue if the ads did not appear on city billboards and asked for orders from Erdoğan on how to proceed. Varank was also concerned that the matter could backfire on the government if the company were to eventually blame the government for not posting the ads. Gökçek assured Varank that the matter would be limited to the municipality and that they could easily make up an excuse to prevent the publication of the advertisements.
The second secret wiretap, which shows Erdoğan ordered that the opposition party’s campaign be halted:Varank_Gokcek1
Varank said Erdoğan had already retired to his bedroom and that it might be difficult to ask him what to do now. “Let me see if he’s awake and if I can show it to him from the door; otherwise, it will have to wait till morning,” Varank said. Gökçek responded that he could delay the response to the CHP by instructing his people to turn off their phones until morning but that he needed an answer within 15 or 20 minutes from the prime minister’s office.
Roughly an hour later, at 21:42 hours, after talking to Erdoğan, Varank called the mayor and said the ads would not run. He also asked the mayor to not let the matter implicate the Office of the Prime Minister, which Gökçek said might be difficult to prevent.
The CHP brought the matter to parliament’s agenda by means of several lawmakers who accused the Stroer-Kentvizyon advertising agency of doing the bidding of the government. CHP deputy Umut Oran asked whether the government had instructed Murat Ilbak, the Stroer-Kentvizyon CEO, to block the opposition ad campaign. Ilbak’s name was mentioned in the wiretaps by Mayor Gökçek as well, and the communication confirmed that Oran’s hunch was correct. Erdoğan was personally involved in putting an end to the CHP’s billboard campaign.
Ilbak is believed to be an old associate of Erdoğan who won municipal billboard contracts when Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s.
At a December 12 press briefing, CHP Deputy Chairman Gürsel Tekin said that by means of its billboard banners, the party wanted to draw public attention to budget talks going on in parliament at the time and also to the lack of Court of Accounts audit reports, which were required by law to be submitted to parliament.
According to Tekin, the advertising agency first asked CHP officials to secure permission from the police department for its billboards; however, the police informed the CHP that they had no jurisdiction over outdoor billboards and as such were not authorized to issue any permission. The company later claimed the ads contravened the rules of the Election Commission, which turned out to be false as well.
Ströer Kentvizyon was a Turkish joint venture between Akademi Reklam and the Ströer Group, headquartered in Cologne. Ilbak was CEO and a shareholder in the company until 2016. Ströer announced on October 9. 2018 that it had sold its stake to former co-shareholder Ilbak, who acquired 90 percent of Ströer Kentvizyon at a transaction value of around 15 million euros.