In Turkey's pervasive surveillance environment, even the prime minister is concerned about his phone being tapped.
“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.
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).
Wiretaps have been an integral part of the “Ergenekon” investigation, but privacy advocates have accused civil servants of leaking to pro-government newspaper transcripts detailing the occasionally compromising personal conversations of suspects.
“These violations have created a psychological environment. The government has been usually complacent about such violations. They have not made this an issue and have not really taken step to deter such violations. So when there is not deterrence, people think they can engage in such violations and get away with it,” Mr. Ergin says.
Officials: Turkey no worse than Europe
Turkish officials have rejected the claims that wiretaps are being used as political weapons, saying the number of taps in Turkey is no higher than in other European countries. In the case of Baykal, meanwhile, government officials worked quickly to stop the online distribution of the controversial footage and asked intelligence officials to look into how it made its way online.
But critics say more needs to be done to protect the privacy of individuals.
“What about the poor average Turkish citizen? What if this happened to them? Would the government take the same approach as they did for Baykal? That’s why we need to have this broader discussion about privacy.”
Turks sense lurking Big Brother
For now, many Turks appear to be operating under the assumption that someone may be listening to what they are saying or watching what they are doing.
“Me and most of my colleagues do not feel that our conversations are private. Turkey has reached a point where nobody wants to talk to you on the phone if you are a journalist. Nobody wants to give you a quote on a critical topic,” says Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist with Milliyet, another Dogan newspaper.
The tapping “instills fear in society at large that there is a big brother watching all of us,” Aydintasbas says. “Privacy ... should be a non-negotiable element of a democracy.”