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Turkey sours on surveillance systems after alleged affair video

The resignation of Deniz Baykal, a major figure in Turkish politics, over a purported sex video has sharpened debate about whether Turkey's surveillance systems have been misused as smear weapons.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent / May 21, 2010

Deniz Baykal, the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leaves the party headquarters after he announced his resignation, at a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, May 10. Baykal's resignation, after alleged affair video, has sharpened debate about whether Turkey's surveillance systems have been misused as smear weapons.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP



In Turkey's pervasive surveillance environment, even the prime minister is concerned about his phone being tapped.

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“I'm not comfortable speaking over the phone,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Turkey's private NTV news network last year. “I tell people who want to speak on the phone to come visit me.”

Most Turks would not be surprised to hear that. In the past few years, hidden camera footage and wiretaps – both legal and illegal – have been increasingly used in investigations and as smear weapons between warring political camps in Turkey, unleashing an almost national sense of paranoia in the country.

Turkey is a republic of fear when it comes to privacy,” says Soli Ozel, a political analyst based in Istanbul. "This is a very dangerous situation."

Marital affair, or a national affair?

Most recently, video from a hidden camera posted to the website of an Islamist newspaper was used to topple Deniz Baykal, who resigned on May 10 as leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), after the footage was leaked.

The video purported to show Mr. Baykal, a stalwart of Turkish politics who was leader of the party since 1992, having an affair with another member of the CHP. But analysts say that more than a personal issue, it's symptomatic of the erosion of privacy rights here in recent years.

“My strong view is that what has happened to Mr. Baykal is an offshoot of an environment which has been created in Turkey over the last three or four years. Widespread and systematic violations of privacy and freedom of communication have taken place in this country,” says Sedat Ergin, a columnist with the daily Hurriyet newspaper, which belongs to the Dogan Group, a large media conglomerate that has been a strong critic of the government.

Top judges' phones wiretapped

Few seem to be immune from the bugging scare. A few months ago, members of the judiciary in Turkey were incensed when it turned out that several top judges and prosecutors had their phones tapped as part of an ongoing investigation into an alleged coup plot – known as “Ergenekon” – against the government of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).