April 5, 2015

Unwelcome journalists challenge Erdoğan with hardball questions

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is always accompanied by a group of hand-picked journalists during his visits to foreign countries from whom he takes apparently softball questions on certain issues on the country's agenda.

Erdoğan, who used to invite journalists from a broader spectrum of the Turkish media during his days as prime minister, now only invites journalists known to be pro-government or pro-Erdoğan and imposes an accreditation ban on critical journalists.

They pose for photos from Erdoğan's luxurious plane around a table, with the journalists most of the time wearing submissive smiles on their faces. These journalists are criticized by many -- particularly by their colleagues who are not invited aboard the presidential plane due to their critical stance -- for asking only safe and favorable questions to Erdoğan while failing to ask tough questions on a series of issues that are the subject of the hottest debates in the country.

Sunday's Zaman has interviewed several journalists who are “unwelcome” on Erdoğan's plane about what they would ask the president if they had been traveling on the plane. These journalists asked many pressing, theoretical questions that Erdoğan ought to answer but is unlikely to face at all

Questions on freedom of the press

Yeni Asya daily's Ankara representative Mehmet Kara said let alone not having been invited on Erdoğan's plane, he has never even been invited to any of Erdoğan's scheduled appointments during his prime ministry or presidency. Kara said he was always subjected to a discriminatory accreditation practice, noting that this situation is a black stain in the name of the freedom of the press in Turkey because his paper has been in circulation for 46 years.

With regards to the questions he would ask Erdoğan if he had been invited on his plane, Kara said he would ask the following questions: “What do you think about the pressure on members of the media? Is it a crime to expose a coup plan? If coup preparations are a conspiracy, is the trial of those who cover coup documents in their news reports normal [in reference to the recent arrest of journalist Mehmet Baransu for exposing documents of a coup attempt known as Sledgehammer]. You always criticize the interest rate policies of the Central Bank of Turkey. Every time you criticize the bank, the value of US dollar increases in Turkey. While some people make profits from this, others lose money. Do you know about the people who make profits over this? From your statements, it is understood that you have great anger at [Turkish Islamic scholar] Fethullah Gülen. How would you address him if he were here right now? Would you think of reconciling with him and returning to the good old days?”

Erdoğan launched a battle against Gülen and the Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement, after the media first ran stories of a far-reaching corruption probe that extended to senior members of Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government on Dec. 17, 2013. Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time and was elected as president last August, has been accusing the movement of masterminding the corruption probe in an attempt to topple his government. The Gülen movement strongly denies Erdoğan's accusations.

Taraf daily's Ankara representative Hüseyin Özay said he has never been invited to any trips of either the president, prime minister or any other ministers during his career. He said, just like other critical journalists, he is not even invited to the press conferences. Özay said he was invited to one of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's scheduled appointments six weeks ago -- but the invitation turned out to be a mistake.

If he had an opportunity to travel with Erdoğan on his plane, Özay said he would ask him to share his comments about the detention, arrest and trial of students for the Tweets they have posted given the fact that Erdoğan was jailed for reciting a poem years ago.

In 1999, Erdoğan served four months in jail after being convicted of Islamist sedition for reading a poem at a political rally in the province of Siirt when he was the mayor of İstanbul for the now-defunct Welfare Party (RP). His conviction came two years after an unarmed military intervention on Feb. 28, 1997.

Another question Özay would ask is about Erdoğan's controversial presidential palace, which is frequently criticized for being too lavish. “Given the fact that most of the recent criticisms to you are about your ‘palace,' have you ever regretted having it constructed?”

Talks with the PKK

The Yeniçağ daily's Ahmet Takan said even if he had been invited, he would not get on Erdoğan's plane because, as a journalist, he would never allow someone to give him a written question to ask the president.

He said if he happened to come across Erdoğan somewhere, he would ask him: “Have you ever met with [outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party leader Abdullah] Öcalan face-to-face or only over the phone? In your view, who is more dangerous: the PKK or journalists?”

Erdoğan and his former party, the ruling AK Party, have been receiving a lot of criticism for making concessions to the PKK and its jailed leader Öcalan, with whom the AK Party has been holding negotiations for several years in a bid to resolve the country's decades-long terrorism problem. The PKK is listed a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the US.

Milli Gazete's Ankara representative Mustafa Yılmaz said he would first ask Erdoğan why he had been invited onto his plane. “To what do I owe having been invited on your plane?”

Yılmaz said his second question would be directed at the other journalists aboard the plane, asking them who they owed for having been invited to the president's plane. He was implying that a journalist would not be invited on the plane unless they had to do something favorable to Erdoğan.

Parallel state and graft claims

Samanyolu TV Ankara representative Abdullah Kadiroğlu's theoretical questions are mostly about the Dec. 17 corruption probe and Erdoğan's accusations against the Gülen movement.

Kadiroğlu said he would ask Erdoğan the following questions if he, by any chance, had been invited onto the president's plane. “Although you call it a coup attempt, public surveys show that most of society believes there is corruption in the country. Even the chief advisor to Prime Minister Davutoğlu once said: ‘AK Party supporters believe in the existence of corruption, and they are disturbed by this.' Are not you disturbed that most of society thinks you and your party have been involved in corruption?”

Kadiroğlu said his second question would be about Erdoğan's claims that the followers of the Gülen movement had established a so-called “parallel state” within the state.

“The pro-government media outlets have until today been unable to provide any evidence to the judiciary to substantiate their news stories related to the so-called parallel state. Do you think your constant use of the discourse of the parallel state has lost credibility?”

Kadiroğlu said he would also ask Erdoğan whether he knows that not a single piece of evidence has been presented to the court against Samanyolu TV top executive Hidayet Karaca, who was arrested for his “membership in a terrorist organization” based on a TV series.

Karaca was arrested in a government-orchestrated police operation against critical media outlets on Dec. 14, 2014. Zaman daily Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı was also detained in the same operation before being released pending trial.

Considering the toughness of his questions, Kadiroğlu said: “I think I would have been kicked out of the plane if I had asked even one of these questions.”

Cumhuriyet daily's Ankara representative Erdem Gül told Sunday's Zaman that his first question to Erdoğan if he had been invited to travel with him would be whether he was free to ask any questions.

“I certainly know that I am free to ask any questions I want. I don't need the approval of the news source for this. But, considering the fact there are two groups of journalists who are either welcome or unwelcome on the plane, I would like to learn the view of the host of the plane,” he said.

Gül said his other question to Erdoğan would be whether he ever feels lonely despite being a leader who has constantly increased his share of the vote over the past 12 years.

The AK Party, founded by Erdoğan in 2001, first came to power in 2002 and has remained there ever since with a growing public support.

Bugün TV General Manager Tarık Toros said he would ask Erdoğan why he does not remain loyal to his presidential oath to be an impartial president and why he has been asking for support for his former party.

Another question Toros would ask the president concerns Erdoğan's accusations about the Gülen movement. “In one of your speeches, you said you know the Gülen movement from its betrayal [meaning that the movement allegedly allied with the coup perpetrators] during the Feb. 28, 1997 coup process. You said the nation had not forgotten this. This shows you had enmity towards this group long ago. Why are you revealing this enmity 18 years later? If you think Gülen betrayed the nation during the Feb. 28 process, then why did you invite him back to Turkey in a speech you made in 2012?”

Erdoğan had good ties with the Gülen movement until late 2013. In an open call in June 2012, Erdoğan invited Gülen to return to Turkey in a speech he delivered during the closing ceremony of the 10th International Turkish Olympiads.

“We want to see those who are abroad and longing for the homeland among us. We want this yearning to end,” Erdoğan said without directly mentioning a name but openly referring to Gülen, who has been residing in self-imposed exile in US for over a decade.

The Ankara representative of the Zaman daily Mustafa Ünal said he would ask Erdoğan when he would host political party leaders at the presidential palace as a president who should remain independent of all political parties.

Ünal said he would also ask Erdoğan about claims of his isolation and whether he ever thinks of returning to the helm of the AK Party.

Published on Today's Zaman, 04 April 2015, Saturday