ANKARA: Turkey’s embattled government vowed action Friday over the bugging of a security meeting on Syria which was leaked on YouTube, labeling it a conspiratorial “plot” ahead of key local elections.
The leak comes amid a fierce standoff between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ally-turned-foe, U.S.-based sheikh Fethullah Gulen, whose followers Erdogan has blamed for the eavesdropping.
As prosecutors launched a probe into the case, President Abdullah Gul warned “we will do whatever necessary” to find the culprits behind the “act of espionage targeting state security.”
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is alleged to be one of the voices on the recording, also warned of “action against those who want to throw Turkey into chaos with political plotting.”
The recording purportedly features top government, military and intelligence officials discussing plans to fabricate an attack that would justify a military strike against neighbouring Syria.
Ankara did not deny that the meeting on Syria took place but said some content in the audio recording had been manipulated. Foreign ministry rooms were later swept for listening devices.
Davutoglu said in a TV interview that the “revelations have only benefited the regime” in Syria.
He added that YouTube was blocked after it refused a government request to take down the recording and said: “This is not freedom of thought. This is a security threat. A state is entitled to take measures.”
The leak followed an avalanche of recordings that implicated Erdogan and his political and business allies in a vast corruption scandal, and which have gone viral on social media in recent months.
The government, which last week shut down Twitter, ordered a block on YouTube Thursday in response to the latest release, prompting fresh criticism from foreign capitals and human rights groups.
“The right to freedom of opinion and expression is a central pillar of modern democratic societies,” said U.N. human rights monitor Frank La Rue. “Blocking access to YouTube and Twitter entirely unduly restricts this fundamental right.”
Sunday’s local elections are seen as a crucial popularity test for Erdogan, ahead of the country’s first direct presidential election in August and parliamentary polls scheduled for next year.
Erdogan has embarked on a marathon campaign to support local candidates of his Islamic-rooted party, leaving his voice hoarse and forcing him to cancel two events Friday, according to his office.
Long hailed at home and abroad for driving strong economic growth, Erdogan has drawn criticism since a police crackdown on protesters last June left eight people dead and thousands injured.
At a rally Thursday, Erdogan angrily condemned the latest YouTube leak as “a vile, cowardly, immoral act” and warned his political foes that “we will go into their caves.”
He has often charged that Gulen followers inside the police and judiciary form a parallel “deep state” and are behind the wire-tapping of thousands of prominent figures.
On Friday, Turkey said it had canceled Gulen’s “green passport,” issued for public servants, citing irregularities in the way it was obtained, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.
Despite the YouTube ban ordered by telecommunications regulator TIB, the platform remained accessible to many users in Turkey Friday.
YouTube was previously banned for two years until 2010 because of material deemed insulting to the country’s revered founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
An Ankara court overturned the Twitter ban Wednesday, but the site remains offline while that ruling is appealed. Use of Twitter nonetheless rose after the official ban, which many users circumvented by using text messaging from their smartphones or so-called virtual private networks.