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In "warning", prime minister says critical columnists to blame for falling stock market

(IPI/IFEX) - 2 March 2010 - Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed critical columnists for driving down Turkey's stock exchange and has suggested that "those who are giving the pencils to them should say: 'Sorry, there is no place in our shop'," according to a column in the Turkish Hürriyet Daily News by IPI Board Member and Hurriyet columnist Ferai Tinç. The original Hürriyet column was translated into English by Hürriyet Daily News staff.

Speaking at a summit of provincial chairs of his Justice and Development Party (AK), on Friday 26 February, Erdogan criticised the media's coverage of the recent 'Sledgehammer' coup plot and his three-way meeting with President Abdullah Gül and Chief of General Staff General Ilker Basbug, held the day before.

Turkish journalists had criticised the prime minister's handling of an alleged plan to overthrow the elected government and stated he should have dealt with the matter in "open, democratic channels," rather than behind closed doors. The threat of instability sparked by an alleged plot by members of the armed forces to oust the ruling AK party - which has espoused certain Islamist principles - has resulted in a fall in Turkey's economic standing.

Erdogan said: "If the stock market is declining 6.5 percent, we know who is responsible," Hurriyet reported.

Erdogan warned media owners and editors, stating that they should be responsible for what their journalists write: "I want to call the bosses of these newspapers. You cannot say, 'I cannot intervene in what the columnist writes.' Nobody has a right to increase tension in this country. I cannot let such articles upset financial balances. You pay the salary of that columnist and tomorrow you will have no right to complain. I am talking to the media bosses. No one has the right to turn a country's economy on its head. We won't allow it, because it's clear the state to which the economy has come. Please, everyone should be aware of their limits. At that point, I need to warn."

Columnists, media chiefs and press freedom groups have in turn heavily criticised the prime minister's speech.

IPI's national committee in Turkey called the speech a "severe verbal attack on free media which is an essential element of democracy," adding: "We consider Prime Minister Erdogan's words with deep concern."

IPI Board Member and Hürriyet columnist Tinç called the speech "unfortunate for the prime minister."

Speaking to the IPI Secretariat in Vienna, she said: "This is a direct attack on press freedom in Turkey. He has shown before his lack of understanding of press freedom and democracy. He says Turkey merits progressive democracy, but on the other hand he is accusing the columnists for the problems with the economy.

"It is impossible to silence journalists with such threats. I urge the prime minister not to quarrel with journalists, but to start a dialogue."

The Turkish national committee also drew attention to the fact that as a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is expected to uphold certain democratic values, including freedom of the press as enshrined in the Parliamentary Assembly's Recommendation 1897: Respect for media freedom.

In another Hürriyet Daily News column, columnist Özgür Ögret quoted IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills as saying: "Although this is not the first time the prime minister has criticised the media; the comments he made are extremely worrying . . . The media is free as long as they do not criticize him in ways he does not like."

Turkey will take over the rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in November 2010.

"As an aspiring member of the European Union and existing member of the Council of Europe, Turkey needs to realise that freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and the press should not be silenced for their criticism," said IPI Director David Dadge.

"I find it regrettable that Prime Minister Erdogan seems unable to appreciate this. I urge Turkey to stop stifling its press, especially in the name of progress. Columnists and news reporters have a democratic right to publish criticism of the government, and their editors and media outlet owners should not be encouraged to sanction them for doing so."

Erdogan has proved to be a fierce critic and an increasingly worrying foe of the media since becoming prime minister in 2003. As IPI observed in its World Press Freedom Review 2009 - Focus on the Middle East and North Africa - the media environment in Turkey has become increasingly constrained due to a protracted stand-off between Erdogan and the critical media, particularly the Dogan Media Group.

In February 2009, Dogan received an unprecedented 345 million Euro fine for an alleged overdue tax payment. Suspicions of political motivation behind the financial penalty grew later in the year when Turkish tax authorities slapped another 1.74 billion Euro fine on Dogan Yayin Holding, owners of the Dogan Media Group, dwarfing the earlier amount.

The fines prompted the EU to issue a report warning Turkey to do more to protect freedom of expression if it wants to eventually join the Union.

At IPI's annual World Congress in Istanbul in 2007, in a Question & Answer session with Congress participants, Erdogan said: "In order to define the ideal state, our constitution has four elements: democratic, secular, social, the rule of law. If one of these is missing you do not have the ideal state. All four of these should be equally important and we never think of compromising on any of these basic tenets."

A free press is considered a cornerstone of any vibrant democracy, but in early 2009 Erdogan used a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new Istanbul underground station as a platform to blast reporters. A brief confrontation broke out during his speech and, as news photographers homed in to get footage, the crowd turned on journalists, attacking them in front of the prime minister who, according to eyewitness accounts, did little to intervene.

On several occasions in 2009 the prime minister urged his supporters to stop buying papers that, as he told one rally, "stand by others, rather than stand by the prime minister of the Turkish Republic."

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