ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A popular game show that was punished for its subtle support of last summer's anti-government protests appears once again to have become the victim of Turkish media censorship as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government scrambles to contain a corruption scandal.
In an episode of "Kelime Oyunu" ("Word Game") that aired shortly after the scandal broke in mid-December, a contestant was asked to guess a six-letter slang word for someone who takes bribes — an apparent reference to the scandal which led to the arrests of two government ministers' sons on bribery charges.
The contestant blanked as the buzzer sounded. The word "yiyici" — slang for grafter — then flashed on the screen. The program was taken off the air, a move which critics saw as the latest example of government media suppression.
"Word Game" had been canceled in June, when its host Ali Ihsan Varol devoted an episode to the summer's anti-government protests, showing solidarity with demonstrators through questions whose answers included: "tear gas," ''dictator," and "censorship."
The show was eventually picked up by another channel, Show TV. Show TV confirmed Monday that the show was taken off the air but had no further comment. The show's host — Varol — did not immediately respond to a request from The Associated Press for comment.
An aide to Erdogan, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of government rules that bar civil servants from speaking on the record without authorization, denied that the government was behind the show's cancellation.
Erdogan reshuffled his government last week, replacing ministers implicated in the corruption scandal that has targeted his close allies, including the chief of a state-owned bank. Claiming that his government was the target of a conspiracy, Erdogan then removed police chiefs and judicial officials believed to be close to an Islamic movement led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, which some commentators say is behind the corruption probe. Erdogan also tried to change police regulations to prevent further inquiries, but that move was blocked by a high court.
Erdogan has taken on domestic and foreign media, accusing them of being part of the conspiracy for reporting on the scandal, in a tactic reminiscent of the government's handling of the summer's widespread anti-government protests. He defiantly denounced the protests as a plot by foreign hands — backed by the international media — to topple his government and destabilize Turkey.
Many Turks were outraged when news channels largely ignored the summer protests in their initial stages, instead airing cookery shows and documentaries including one on penguins. Many people turned to Twitter and Facebook for news of the unrest and penguins became a symbol of the protests.
Since the scandal broke, journalists have been barred from entering police buildings. Media advocacy groups have accused the government of trying to control coverage of the allegations of illicit money transfers to Iran and bribery for construction projects.
The pro-government media has largely downplayed the corruption allegations, and in some cases, exercised self-censorship. One television station downplayed its own scoop when a government minister announced during an interview with the channel that he was resigning — and then he urged Erdogan to do the same.
NTV, the 24-hour news channel, initially made no mention of the minister's call for Erdogan's resignation. "The explosive news landed on its lap, but within NTV there was unease, panic and fright," wrote journalist and political commentator Ahmet Hakan, in a tongue-in-cheek column for Hurriyet newspaper. "It (acted) as if nothing had happened."
Erdogan's party came to power in 2002, promising to crack down on widespread corruption that had plagued Turkish politics in the 1990s. He proceeded to carry out economic and democratic reforms that helped raise Turkey's international profile.
But in more recent years, critics say the government has grown more authoritarian, showing no tolerance for dissent and cracking down on free press. According to an annual report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country, with Iran and China running close behind.
Erdogan has publicly lashed out at journalists whose reporting he does not like. On several occasions, those journalists have been sacked by media bosses, keen to stay on the government's good side. The news media have not been the government's only target.
On Sunday, a woman was briefly detained and questioned by police after she showed an empty shoe box from the terrace of her home overlooking a town square where Erdogan was delivering a speech. The shoe box has become a symbol of the scandal, after news reports said police had seized US$4.5 million in cash stashed in shoe boxes from the home of the bank chief.
"Many people live on just a 690 lira (US$328) pension. I wanted to show my reaction," the woman, Nurhan Gul, told Kanal D television. "I was taken away, leaving my 2-year-old at home."