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Turkey on fast track to 'mukhabarat' state

The government is now trying to justify its monitoring activities by adopting a bill to change the intelligence agency's responsibilities

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has spent three of his eleven year rule trying to oust his former friend in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad. But facing challenges both at home and abroad, he seems to be weaker than his foe in Damascus.

The primary source of his weakness stems from eroding public support that he has enjoyed for more than a decade, mostly over his forceful rhetoric and democratic actions. Recent polls showed that his popularity is hovering around 36 percent, a significant decline from the previous 50 percent.

After a recent graft scandal revealed the dirty side of his government – a black stain for a leader who claims to be a pious Muslim – Erdoğan is now moving to turn Turkey into a "mukhabarat" state, dominated by intelligence agencies similar to other Arab nations such as Egypt and Syria. The goal is to keep his core electorate away from realities.

Recent bills his government is preparing to adopt in an unprecedented pace includes tightening control over judiciary, granting wide authority to the intelligence agency and exercising censorship over print and digital media.

One part of Erdoğan’s strategy is to convince his supporters that critics of the government are traitors. He makes sure in his public speeches to dole out fair share of his hatred to every critic – from the business community to the media.

An editorial published by a Turkish newspaper this week even urged parents to keep away their children from TV monitors because the prime minister’s speech could be “dangerous for their spiritual health and education.”

Obsessed with controlling information

Erdoğan is obsessed with controlling the flow of information. He is long known for his intolerance toward media, but recently leaked voice recordings between Erdoğan and media bosses revealed that he is even dealing with small media reporting too.

For instance, while he was visiting Morocco last June, he called a top manager of one of the mainstream media company to scold him for airing the speech of an opposition leader. He later justified his move by telling reporters that he had to “educate” journalists how to do their job.

In another incident, he called the same manager and complained about a low-rating morning talk show that featured two people criticizing Erdoğan. The two were later fired. In a separate phone conversation, the leader seems to be disturbed about the headline of a news report about health on the 24th page of a newspaper.

The newspaper manager says during phone conversations that they could interview the health minister to “compensate the mistake.” The reporter who wrote the piece, his editor and even the designer of the page were fired over the “mistake.”

This is only small part of his attempt to censure critical reports about him. During phone conversations, the media manager tells Erdoğan that he is being wrongly informed about the media outlet’s broadcasting. The leader rejects the claim, saying that he is closely and personally monitoring the broadcasting.

One of Erdoğan’s deputies, Süleyman Soylu, is said to be leading a paid army of social media trolls, who intimidate and threaten critics on social media outlets. Well-organized, these trolls are using Islamist rhetoric and insults to silence critical intellectuals, including journalists and academics.

Mahir Zeynalov

One wonders how Erdoğan can spare time to follow every detail of the media instead of running a huge country that is deeply plunged in political turmoil.

Outrageous Internet bill

To prevent similar voice recordings from spreading over the Internet, Erdoğan moved to adopt an outrageous Internet bill that allows a bureaucrat or a minister to shut down any website without a court order. Twitter and Facebook are two social media realms that Erdoğan cannot censure, but his government is doing its best to keep it under control.

One of Erdoğan’s deputies, Süleyman Soylu, is said to be leading a paid army of social media trolls, who intimidate and threaten critics on social media outlets. Well-organized, these trolls are using Islamist rhetoric and insults to silence critical intellectuals, including journalists and academics.

A voice recording that emerged on social media on Friday showed that an adviser to the prime minister told a manager in public broadcasting TV about a tweet posted by a news editor, who criticized the closure of preparatory schools. The public TV later fired the veteran journalist.

The list of examples is getting longer every day with increasing evidence that Erdoğan’s Turkey is turning into a state where the prime minister and his team are playing an intelligence game by silencing critics.

The government is now trying to justify these illegal actions by adopting a bill on the work of the intelligence agency. The bill includes unbelievable restrictions of freedom, including wiretapping of phones without court order.

A government that we supported came with a promise to lead the country toward a consolidated democracy, but we are increasingly a part of a ‘mukhabarat’ state, where every step we take is being monitored.

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Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.