- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Some stories are not told often enough. Yet the rumors and the whispers of them remain steady in silence. They smell deeply for anyone suspicious but remain in shallow darkness of fear. Those are the stories related to corruption and bribery: the networking between the government and the private sector.

Fighting corruption is no easy task. Those who are in the best position to battle it are often the ones most deeply involved. Once an outsider shuffles the cards, a reality check kicks in for the sake of the status quo. The one who has the power continues to whistle the blow.

Yet, the wind sometimes blows unexpectedly. When Sherron Watkins blew the whistle on the Enron executives who were cooking the books and bankrupting the company, what was once America’s seventh-largest company became history.

The details of how Enron executives managed to orchestrate a massive fraud should not be as significant as their legacy of shame and loss. The guilty, however, don’t always feel shame.

Bad things do happen everywhere. And nowhere and no one is perfect. But it is wrong to hide behind comparisons to weigh down the significance of such crimes that shame morality, justice and fairness in any society.

When I was in Turkey recently, corruption allegations were the stories I heard most often. Numerous business owners told me stories about corruption and bribery, but none for the record, as they have businesses to tend, and everything is about money. And the government has proven that it can turn off the flow of money if you are on the opposition’s side.

The Uzan family, once one of Turkey’s wealthiest families, is an example.

They were an exceptional case — spoiled in wealth and low in decency in public eye. They acquired a great deal of power with their media group, owning television and radio outlets, and newspapers.

Cem Uzan decided to use his position to rally against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His media companies leveled many corruption allegations against Mr. Erdogan — and suffered huge consequences. Five Uzan television stations were shuttered, mainly because the government said they violated laws forbidding media owners from promoting a political platform on their own networks. Other Uzan businesses were targeted and either seized or shut down. However, the key to covering up the government’s excessive use of force was that they were caught legally vulnerable. The Uzans were found guilty of “perpetrating a huge fraud” in a business deal with Motorola.

The question remains whether Mr. Erdogan’s government stepped over the line against the Uzans, and if the government action is really about, as Mr. Uzan says, punishing him for his popularity and opposing views. A court decision may soon find the government at fault.

Mr. Erdogan may have wanted to make an example of the Uzan family. But then the focus needs to be on cleaning up the business in society as a whole — starting with the government.

Turkey’s finance minister, Kemal Unakitan, not only survived numerous censure motions over corruption allegations, but he has also retained his job. His son and daughter, both in business, are accused of benefiting from their father’s position. The government lowered the value-added tax for pasteurized egg products from 18 percent to 8 percent just as Mr. Unakitan’s son invested in the sector in what is called a “privilege for the Unakitan family.” Even more rumors swirl about the families of other ruling party members.

People talk about the newly emerging construction companies that won bids and are making a lot of money, even though they do shoddy work. The whistleblowers complain that patronage and favoritism are creating a new privileged population. In this atmosphere, people express themselves as AK Party sympathizers. Half of all Turks voted for the AKP in recent elections.

While the AK Party is conducting business based on patronage and favoritism, Turks are trying to prove themselves loyal to the ruling elite. Alas, Turks see no real contender to Mr. Erdogan.

Corruption has been a problem in Turkey for too long. The Council of Europe stressed in its latest report on corruption that the problem remains major and widespread. There is much to be done to implement reforms and really clean up the corruption in government and society.

Yet the rumors on the street repeat the old story: The media help cover up most corruption allegations. Currently, the Dogan group is the biggest media owner in Turkey, with holdings including more than 80 percent of the country’s media outlets. And it needs the government’s support for its other businesses. Those who defend the system compare Aydin Dogan to Rupert Murdoch, and say that the expectation of special treatment is everywhere.

Yet until someone in the government and business leaders have real courage and make headway toward cleaning things up, the sad status quo will remain. And we have only ourselves to blame.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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