The release of a recording of what sounds like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan instructing his son Bilal over the phone on how to hide very large sums of currency has presented the PM with one of the most serious challenges of his twelve-year rule.
The leaking and the contents of the conversation, which appears to have taken place some two months ago, may have shocked some Turks, but Erdogan himself should not have been too surprised that his phone might have been tapped. After all, in a 2009 interview with the NTV television network, Erdogan expressed concern that his phone conversations were being listened to. "What do you think? Of course I am worried about it. Therefore I watch what I say over the phone. I'm not comfortable speaking over the phone," Erdogan told his interviewer.
"I tell people who want to speak on the phone to come visit me."
Erdogan's concern at the time was not unreasonable. Over the last seven years or so, wiretapping -- both legal and illegal -- has been booming in Turkey, with the release of secretly recorded audio and video now an integral feature of Turkish political life. Wiretaps were a major feature of the Ergenekon case and the online release of secretly recorded video of Deniz Baykal, former leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), having a liaison with a female colleague was responsible for the veteran politician's exit from public life in 2010.
At the time of Baykal's resignation I wrote a piece for Eurasianet that looked at how pervasive wiretapping culture had become in Turkey and how it was creating a new culture of paranoia, one where few felt safe to speak over the telephone. Four years later the situation has only gotten worse. As Daniel Dombey writes in the Financial Times: "Bugged recordings of some of the most prominent people in national life are appearing almost every day, although coverage in the Turkish media rather depends on the political loyalties of the outlet in question."
The big difference between now and 2010, of course, is that then it was Baykal, Ergenekon suspects and other enemies of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) who were finding themselves victims of wiretapping, while today its the PM himself who appears to have been bugged (Erdogan has said the recording of him and his son talking is a "montage," which suggests that his encrypted phone conversations were very likely hacked).
The other difference between now and then is that several years ago Erdogan and other AKP officials seemed to care very little about what the profusion of wiretaps meant for individual liberties. Now, of course, as the issue is starting to hit closer to home, they are extremely concerned about the issue.
Their concern comes a bit too late. Had the government taken some serious steps to get to the root of Turkey's runaway wiretapping problem and shown real interest in protecting individual rights say in 2009, when Erdogan told NTV of his concerns, the PM might not be in the pickle he currently finds himself in. For a time, the profusion of wiretapping and surreptitious surveillance suited Erdogan and the AKP's goals. Today, though, they are learning that oldest of lessons: you reap what you sow.