Accessibility links

Phone Tapping in Turkey Raises Privacy Concerns


In Turkey the revelation last month by the ministry of justice that 70,000 telephones have been monitored by the state in the last three years, has provoked a major controversy. Many of the telephone taps are related to an ongoing investigation and trial into an alleged conspiracy by a secular nationalist group known as Ergenekon to overthrow the Islamic rooted government now controlled by the AK Party. But there is an increasing feeling that the investigation could turn Turkey into a big brother state.

Ugur Dundar is one of Turkey's most famous and respected news anchors. Here, he's launching a live tirade against the government and state prosecutors on his prime time tv program.

He says Turkey is becoming an authoritarian country with no respect for privacy or justice. The "Prime Time Rant", as it's become known, follows the release of telephone conversations Dundar had with his wife.

They were recorded as part of an ongoing two year investigation into the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy - an alleged plot by secularists to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government. The group being investigated is believed to be a secular, ultranationalist organization with ties to members of the Turkey's miltary.

The investigation is creating unease among many secular people who are critical of the government. Nuray Mert is a political scientist and newspaper columnist.

"If you live this very secular lifestyle, and if you think it is under threat you also feel personally under threat," said Nuray Mert. "It is not very realistic, of course. I mean, no ordinary person is going to be arrested because she or he is living a secular life. But this is how it is being perceived by people. More and more these people, they feel as a member of a minority in Turkey. And anything can happen, this is the feeling of minorities, you know anything may happen any time to them. Now secular people have started to think and perceive like this, that anything may happen to them that they may even end up in a jail one day. This is perception, whether its true or not."

Those concerns have been heightened with the government admitting that 70,000 telephones are being monitored by the police.

Many whose phones are tapped are part of an investigation of nearly 200 people who are currently on trial or charged with plotting to overthrow the government.

The indictment against them includes thousands of transcripts of recorded telephone conversations, many of which are of a deeply personal nature with their spouses.

The widespread use of tapping has led to a boom in the sale of devices to block telephone monitoring . One of the country's biggest sellers of this equipment is digitakal.com. Kerem Birol is head of sales for the company. He says they are struggling to meet demand.

He says there has really been an increase in sales over the last two months - maybe a 100 percent increase. After news broke of the monitoring of telephones people started to become suspicious of whether they are being listened to or not Birol says. So he says they looked for ways to prevent it and started buying these kinds of devices. He says lawyers use them in their offices - we even have some judges as customers.

The scope of the investigation continues to widen and there are new revelations practically every week.

A news channel recently showed live footage of the alleged discovery of a secret arms depot, which investigators claim was part of the conspirators plans to assassinate leading figures of the government.

The arms cache included armor piercing rifles, explosives and even flame throwers. The government says the find indicates the seriousness of the conspiracy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked critics of the probe.

Who is trying to block this and why, he asks. He says there are serious accusations concerning criminal activity according to the Turkish constitution and laws. He says Turkey has a legal system that requires following up and investigating these accusations. He says the governmetn must leave the legal system to function and allow the law to work. He says no one will get anywhere by blocking this process, by exploiting this work, by threatening the prosecutors and judiciary.

But the investigation is polarizing. Many government critics say they are now living in fear. One of them is writer Mine Kirikannat.

She says she is afraid and all of her friends are afraid. She says you cannot talk about politics anymore on the telephone, as you never know who is listening. She says you always say, "I will talk about it when I see you." She says the police can arrest you and imprison you for months without charge and most of the people arrested are just opponents of the government. She says the government is using this investigation to silence their critics.

The government strongly denies such accusations.

Concerns are also being raised internationally. The European Union and the United States initially welcomed the investigation into the alleged conspiracy against the government, seeing it as part of Turkey's democracy drive. It would put an end, they hoped, to the era of military interventions and coups. But, as police rounded up journalists, human rights activists, artists and academics in an ever-expanding case, some question whether the ruling party has seized the judiciary, once a bastion of the secularist elite, to punish its political opponents.

XS
SM
MD
LG