September 8, 2015

The last battle against free press in Turkey

Abdullah Bozkurt

For the first time, Turkey's chief political Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his associates in the government twisted anti-money laundering and terrorist financing laws that are designed to protect the integrity of the financial system and prevent illicit funds transfers into a tool for cracking down on media outlets in order to muzzle the free, independent and opposition press.

Last week's raid on the Koza İpek Holding conglomerate, which is active in the mining, energy and media businesses, saw the blatant abuse by the government of the Finance Ministry's Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK), an economic intelligence unit of Turkey that coordinates with intergovernmental watchdogs such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the Egmont Group in the global fight against money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Turkey's political opposition, press freedom advocacy groups and bar associations have all labeled the crackdown as a politically motivated step by an Islamist ruler in order to silence critical and independent media ahead of the Nov. 1 snap election, which is seen by Erdoğan as a “make it or break it” race.

The case against Koza İpek Holding, one of the top taxpaying business groups in the country, fell apart from day one when official documents emerged proving that all allegations listed by MASAK are nothing but imagination and speculation. MASAK and the government knew all about how weak their case against this group was. They pursued the witch-hunt nonetheless to create a perception of impropriety for this group in the public eye and to discredit one of the growing vocal opposition channels in Turkey.

It is hardly surprising given the fact that MASAK was quickly turned into a partisan instrument after the December 2013 corruption investigations uncovered illicit money transfers from Saudi Arabia and Iran that involved senior government officials. Erdoğan and his family members were implicated in the scandal, prompting the government to completely reshuffle MASAK, which was instrumental in probing controversial figures, such as Iranian Reza Zarrab and Saudi Yasin al-Qadi. The entire leadership at MASAK was purged and instead partisans and loyalists took over this key financial crimes investigative body. MASAK President İbrahim Hakkı Polat did not even bother hiding his affection for President Erdoğan from his social media account and unashamedly asked the public prosecutor to seize the Koza İpek group to please his loved one, President Erdoğan.

The end result is that the Islamists have not only managed to render MASAK ineffective in detecting illicit money transfers and terrorism financing, but have also turned it into a political prop that keeps plotting against critics and opponents of the political Islamist rulers. All this time, not a single case of money laundering has been initiated by MASAK that has actually turned into a criminal prosecution and trial, or the seizing of assets with a preliminary investigation, except the sham investigation into Koza İpek Holding. The bulk of referrals by MASAK have been simply done pursuant to the decisions of the UN Security Council sanctions committees, which mandated that the Turkish cabinet issue a decree to that effect. This process is a sort of automated response by MASAK in line with Turkey's UN commitments. The rest came from bank notifications that informed MASAK of suspicious transactions that were red-flagged automatically, or applications from local prosecutors and judges.

Turkey, the only NATO member country that was still on the gray list of the FATF – jurisdictions with strategic deficiencies in anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CT) -- barely escaped from getting pushed to the black list of countries that include Iran and North Korea in September 2014. Delaying the terrorism financing bill for almost a decade, the government finally approved one in 2013, albeit with serious shortcomings. The November 2014 report on Turkey made clear that Turkey is not out of the woods yet due to the removal from the gray list being dependent on a desk-based technical review of the data provided by the Turkish government, rather than a field analysis of the effectiveness of the Turkish AML/CT regime. “It is also important to note that these conclusions do not prejudge the results of future assessments as they are based on information which was not verified through an on-site process and was not, in every case, as comprehensive as would exist during a mutual evaluation,” the FATF underlined.

If MASAK has done its job as required by law and in compliance with its commitments to the FATF, it should have pursued the January 2014 intercepted arms-laden trucks case that uncovered a crime syndicate which amazingly fused both money laundering and the financing of terrorism in Syria in one scheme. The official court documents verified that the trucks' cargo not only included a huge cache of heavy arms and munitions that were destined for radical groups in Syria, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but also a huge amount of money in foreign currency denominations that was stashed under the crates of munitions. What is more, the testimony from the gendarmes revealed that the escort car driven by members of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was carrying bags of heroin in the trunk. This shipment, just one of some 2,000 trucks that Turkish Islamists have sent to Syrian brethren that have been fighting to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime since 2011, had everything for which MASAK should be looking more deeply.

Yet MASAK turned a blind eye to this case while the government orchestrated the reshuffle of the prosecutors and members of the security agencies that intercepted and investigated arms shipments and later had them arrested on trumped-up espionage charges. Erdoğan personally intervened in the case, ordering the governor to illegally overrule prosecutors so that the shipment got released. He rushed a bill through Parliament to provide blanket immunities for members of MİT so that they could act with impunity in money laundering and the financing of terrorism schemes. Democratic Left Party (DSP) leader Masum Türker stated that the gold and dollar shipments in these arms-laden trucks are handled by ISIL inside Syria and Iraq after being handed over to them by Turkish intel agents at the border.

Perhaps the government has long been pondering seizing the assets of Koza İpek Holding, but the raid on their corporate offices, as well as 23 different companies owned by the group, appears to have been prompted by the fact that the group's flagship daily Bugün published further evidence of the government's involvement in aiding and abetting ISIL. On the day Bugün published still shots from Customs' closed circuit security camera at the border gate with Syria, showing that materials for the manufacturing of bombs and arms were freely transported through the gate without any interference from Customs officials, the police raided Koza İpek. It is very clear that the Islamists in the government do not want the clandestine business in which they were intimately involved getting publicized in the media.

Using all the tools at his disposal, ranging from harassment and intimidation to the abuse of state powers and the criminal justice system, Erdoğan seems determined to muzzle independent media ahead of the election. He will continue to bully his critics with the seizing of assets, defamation lawsuits, arbitrary application of laws and long pre-trial imprisonment. Akın İpek, the owner of the Koza İpek group, vowed to defy the government pressure despite the raids and said he has nothing to hide. Unlike many other media owners who simply caved under the pressure from the government or were lured by it after lucrative government contracts and tenders were awarded to them, İpek always kept his distance from the government by not competing for any government tenders and not involving himself in business with the government. Yet he has been targeted with vicious harassment for the last three years with an army of auditors descending on his companies. His mining licenses were revoked arbitrarily by the government despite the fact that he had secured long-term leases. He has been battling this through litigation and in fact won several cases that restored his prior authorization for the mining activities.

In a related development, the arrest of British journalists -- who work for the US-based Vice News -- in Diyarbakır last week on totally absurd charges, before they were released following days of captivity, marked a new page in media crackdown in Turkey. For the first time in 15 years foreign journalists were arrested by the court, although before there were several foreign reporters who were detained by the police and prosecutors but not arrested by the court. This was a calculated decision by the government to intimidate the foreign press corps and dissuade them from covering sensitive issues that may harm the image of Erdoğan and the government.

That means Erdoğan is desperate and whatever steps he has taken so far to muzzle the vibrant and diversified voices in Turkish and foreign press are simply not working. He even temporarily shut down social media outlets such as YouTube and Twitter when they became the primary source of anti-government leaks for the corruption files and others. They have all proven to be futile attempts.

The next step against the media will be the mobilization of thugs to physically attack the leading critical journalists and media outlets. This was tried last year against leading TV network Samanyolu and the best-selling daily Zaman. It turned out that protestors were actually on the payroll of municipalities run by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). The mainstream daily Hürriyet faced mob vandalism last night after it reported Erdoğan's public remarks on its website. Perhaps in the last ditch-effort by the Islamists, even murder plots are now in the works to escalate the climate of fear for free and independent media. That won't work, either, as it will further embolden the resolve of independent and critical media against the increasingly repressive and brutal authoritarian regime.

Published on Today's Zaman, 7 September 2015, Monday