A chief aide to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the owner of a media group to remove a news story about himself from a website, secret wiretap records have revealed.
Mustafa Varank, currently serving as minister for industry and technology in the Erdoğan government, called Osman Gökçek, the owner of pro-government network Beyaz TV to have a story about himself removed, according to the wiretap records. In the phone conversation that took place on December 12, 2013 Varank said there was a story about him on the Beyaz TV website and asked Gökçek to delete it as soon as possible.
Varank’s phone was wiretapped by Turkish investigators who were looking into an organized crime network that had links to senior government officials in a major fraud probe. An Istanbul court authorized the wiretap on November 22, 2013 as part of investigation case file No. 2012/656.
The transcript shows Gökçek badmouthed the Beyaz TV reporters who put the story on the website and told an employee to immediately take care of it while Varank held on the phone. He then got back to the phone and told Varank the story had been taken down.
The story detailed allegations that Varank was a womanizer, claims first raised by investigative reporter Mehmet Baransu, who worked for the independent Taraf newspaper. Baransu had broken several stories in Taraf revealing how the Erdoğan government was illegally profiling citizens based on their political views and ethnic or religious backgrounds. He also exposed Varank as a person who had abused his position by pressuring civil society organizations to back his boss Erdoğan by signing them for newspaper advertising that was run in about a dozen dailies.
Secret wiretap records:Mustafa_Varanak_Mehmet_Baransu
Varank’s criticism of Baransu on Twitter over articles that rattled the government led the two to exchange remarks on a micro blogging website. The journalist alleged that his investigation also found that Varank was a womanizer when he was in Istanbul and had run some questionable businesses with his friends. The revelations made headlines on many news websites including that of Beyaz TV.
Erdoğan’s aide publicly denied the allegations, but the wiretap showed he was privately calling media owners to censor the articles about him.
In the same conversation Gökçek also told Erdoğan’s chief advisor that he was prepared to run defamation campaigns against journalists who were critical of the government and would soon launch negative stories about those journalists, starting with Emre Uslu, a columnist for the Taraf daily. He promised Varank that after Uslu, Baransu would be targeted. “Don’t worry, I’m well prepared [for this], Gökçek told Varank.
Gökçek is the son of long-time Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek, who has been the subject of wide-ranging corruption, fraud and embezzlement allegations. After serving as mayor of Ankara from 1994 to 2017, Melih Gökçek was forced to resign at the request of Erdoğan, who brought in a low-key loyalist to run the city.
Baransu has been behind bars since March 2015 on dubious charges and faces nearly a thousand years in prison as part of scores of cases concocted by the Erdoğan government to silence the country’s best investigative journalist. Uslu was forced to move to the United States to escape a similar fate, while Taraf Editor-in-Chief Ahmet Altan has been in jail since September 2016. Altan was convicted and sentenced to 10 years, six months in November 2019 on false terrorism charges, although the court decided to release him pending appeal. He was re-arrested several days later and remains imprisoned as of today.
The Erdoğan government has shut down nearly 200 media outlets in the last three years and seized the assets of journalists and media groups. The independent media has been effectively wiped out in Turkey. According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF), a Swedish-based rights advocacy group, 165 journalists are currently in Turkish prisons, while 167 living in exile face outstanding arrest warrants. Turkey has been named one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists in recent years.