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Tapes

Rafał Hetman

“Tapes of truth”, tapes scandal, recordings and transcripts have had a significant influence on national or international politics in recent years. Tapes can form directions of political debate; they can destroy a politician’s career; they can even lead to street riots and the loss of power. Sometimes, there is no action after a severe problem was revealed. Let’s see how tape scandals have affected the politics of 10 selected countries in recent times. Find the hidden elements that refer to scandals.

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Iceland

Former Iceland prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, as well as former foreign minister of the country, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, several other men and one woman, were wiretapped in a pub opposite the parliament buildings in Reykjavík. During an informal conversation over a beer lasting about three hours, Icelandic politicians were cursing, laughing at the #MeToo movement, vulgarly describing their friends and comparing the disabled former MP to an animal.

Some of the interlocutors talked about women they would like to have sexual intercourse with. One of the people recorded warned others against one of his friends because she could not be trusted  “She plays with men just like women do best”. Men were also questioning another woman’s political career because “she is not hot enough this year”, and “her beauty is rapidly disappearing”.

Recordings, revealed in the autumn of 2018, aroused widespread outrage. Due to the scandal that broke out, the celebration of Iceland’s independence was accompanied by a protest march against politicians who were recorded by one of the bar’s guests.

Commenting on the case, Stefania Óskarsdóttir, a political science professor at the University of Iceland, said that the level of anger throughout the country showed that the strength of women in Icelandic society increased, not to mention their strong political position. Iceland is considered to be a country extremely tolerant and caring for gender equality. The prime minister of Iceland is a woman – her name is Katrín Jakobsdóttir. In 2018, a law was passed that obliged companies and government agencies to maintain wage equality.

Interestingly, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, one of the men recorded on tapes, defended gender equality, when his party was ruling. Four politicians, including former prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, apologized for their words but stressed that they were recorded during a private conversation.

“We did not want to hurt anyone, and it is clear that our statements are inexcusable”, they underlined in a joint statement. “We are determined to draw conclusions and do our best to be polite and show respect to our colleagues”.

Macedonia

In 2015 Macedonia found itself in a middle of a several-month political crisis because of publication of wiretapped conversations of 20 thousand people, including members of the then government and the heads of security services.

In the first half of 2015, Zoran Zaev, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), published the content of wiretapped conversations. Not only politicians were wiretapped but also journalists, foreign diplomats, judges and religious leaders. Zaev claimed the then government was responsible for wiretapping, especially Sasho Mijalkov, the director of the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence, and prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who both ordered the operation.

In the face of these charges, the Macedonian authorities accused the opposition of spying, the willingness to destabilise the country and coup d’état. Zaev passport was confiscated. The tapes revealed corruption at the highest levels of government. They showed the mechanisms of filling state positions by people of the ruling right-wing party the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity simplified as VMRO-DPMNE and the backstage of selecting judges.

Due to the wiretapping scandal, protests broke out across the country and the political crisis deepened. Especially since Zaev released a new set of recordings and accused Gruevski and his interior minister Gordana Jankuloska of trying to cover the tracks of the tragic death of a 22-year-old man who was beaten to death by a police officer during a ceremony after the 2011 elections.

The European Union joined the negotiations between the government and the opposition. Based on the agreement, it was established that the early parliamentary elections would take place in Macedonia and prime minister Nikola Gruevski would resign. In January 2016, Gruevski resigned from his position and was replaced by Emil Dimitriev.

In the parliamentary elections held at the end of 2016, the so far ruling VMRO-DPMNE party won 51 seats, and the Social Democratic U

Armenia

The title of the recording that appeared on YouTube was: “How does the Armenian judicial system work?”

You can hear the recorded voices of Artur Vanetsyan, the director of Armenian National Security Service, and Sasun M. Khachatryan, the head of Special Investigation Service of the Republic of Armenia. Both men were discussing a criminal case regarding the events on March 1, 2008, in which former President Robert Kocharyan, former defence minister Mikael Harutyunyan, and Yuri Khachaturov, the Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) were accused.

The events that took place on March 1, 2008, led to the death of eight civilians and two police officers after the government called in the army and police to disperse the demonstration against the results of the elections on February 19, 2008. The protesters supported the first President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, claiming that he had won the election and that the voting results had to be reconsidered. Instead, the Central Election Commission announced that Serzh Sargsyan won. Robert Kocharyan was still the president of Armenia at that time, and he decided to declare a state of emergency.

The head of Special Investigation Service Sasun M. Khachatryan, who was wiretapped, said that he intended to charge former President Robert Kocharyan and issue an arrest warrant. He also said he planned to charge Yuri Khachaturov. In response, Artur Vanetsyan, the director of Armenian National Security Service, told him to “leave Khachaturov alone”, as it could complicate the relationships with Russia. Russia was the leader of the organization headed by Khachaturov.

“He is the head of CSTO – leave him alone. We gonna have troubles. A house arrest might be enough[…]” said Vanetsyan on the record.

“Should not we exclude him? We already have him. Talk to the prime minister [Pashinyan] because I told him I would arrest Khachaturov” answered Khachatrian. During the second conversation,  Vanetsyan informed his interlocutor that “the prime minister (…) agreed” to arrest Khachaturov. He also assured Khachatrian that “the judge would sanction the arrest of Robert Kocharyan and Yuri Khachaturov”.

Artur Vanetsyan later admitted at a press conference that the conversation recorded was authentic. He confirmed he had phoned Pashinyan about Kocharyan’s arrest, but he denied that the prime minister agreed. Vanetsyan also assured that he had not pressured the judge.

Artur Vanetsyan and Sasun Khachatryan expressed their willingness to resign, provided that the public would want it. Eventually, they both remained in function.

Prime Minister Pashinyan referred to the recordings, saying that “the traitors of the nation” were responsible for wiretapping. “Wiretapping of directors of special service is a conspiracy, a crime against Armenian statehood. I instructed the Department of National Security and the police to find the conspirators in the shortest possible time and bring them to justice. These hidden forces and illegally armed groups will be discovered and destroyed, “said the prime minister.

Greece

The Greeks got to know the biggest wiretapping scandal in the history of their country in reverse order. On March 9, 2005, Kostas Tsalikidis, a 38-year-old network planning engineer, was found dead in his Athenian apartment. It seemed it was a suicide. As it turned out, the news of Tsalikidis’ death was the first public information about the scandal Greece lived for the following months. However, the most important events took place long before the death of thirty-eight years old man.

On January 24, 2005, users of the Vodafone Greece network were unable to send text messages for unknown reasons. The analysis of the problem lasted over a month. On March 4, Ericsson, which dealt with the investigation, discovered 6500 lines of malicious programming code that was responsible for the problem. Besides, the programming code was used to wiretapping telephone users and was probably located in the system from mid-2004.

On March 7, 2005, Ericsson notified Vodafone of illegal wiretapping and malware in the company’s systems. The next day, Georgios Koronias, the general manager of the Greek branch of Vodafone, asked to remove the software. So it happened and as a result, it became impossible to investigate the whole case and find the perpetrators responsible for wiretapping.

On March 9, Kostas Tsalikidis was found dead in his apartment. There are many indications that he committed suicide. However, some think that he could have been murdered. There was much speculation, for example, that Tsalikidis was killed because he discovered or was close to discovering who the perpetrators were. Either he was involved in planting the bugging himself and committed suicide fearing the consequences.

It is not known what was exactly wiretapped. We know, however, who were the people wiretapped. There were about 100 of them. Among them were the then prime minister Konstantinos A. Karamanlis and the members of his family; the Mayor of Athens Theodora “Dora” Bakoyannis, the highest-ranking officials in the Ministry of Defense, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Public Procurement Office. Members of the ruling party, as well as opposition politicians were also bugged. The telephones of an employee of an American embassy (of Greek and American origin) and the telephones of some Arab businessmen living in Athens were also wiretapped.

Who was responsible for wiretapping? In September 2011, new evidence emerged indicating that the US embassy in Athens was responsible for the scandal. The main proof was that of the 14 prepaid cell phones used to capture the signal three were purchased by the same person. Moreover, they were bought at the same time as the fourth one, which proved to be the key one.

The device was able to make connections with mobile phones and landline phones at the US Embassy in Athens. The same phone with a SIM card registered at the embassy was used to call to Ellicott City and Catonsville, Maryland. Both locations are associated with the US National Security Agency (NSA).

In the investigation one suspect was identified: William George Basil, an NSA official of Greek descent. The Greek authorities issued an arrest warrant for Basil, who has been hiding since then.

Why did the US wiretap Greek politicians? Probably it was all about examining the level of security before the upcoming Olympic Games in Athens. These were the first summer Olympic Games after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Hungary

Former Hungarian prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was too honest, and that was his undoing.

“We lied during last year and a half or two years. We have not achieved anything for the last four years. Nothing. You will not be able to give a single significant government’s decision of which we could be proud”, said Hungarian prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány in May 2006. The meeting took place one month after the Hungarian Socialist Party won the elections. However, the prime minister’s words were published in the media only in September 2006.

“It was absolutely clear that what we were saying was not true”, Gyurcsány explained how he persuaded citizens to vote for his party. “We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening”, admitted the then prime minister.

“Hungarians want to live like in the West, but they do not want to adopt Western rules”, he said about his countrymen.

After the publication of the recordings, people took to the streets in protest. Around 3,000 people gathered in front of the parliament in Budapest. On September 19, the demonstration in the Hungarian capital was even bigger approximately 10,000 people took part in it. The protests turned into riots. There were fights with the police and the public television building was set on fire. The demonstrations also took place in other cities.

Mass protests and clashes with the police happened again a month later, on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. The protesters, on the other hand, launched … a Soviet tank, which was part of the exhibition related to the anniversary. It is said that a veteran of the Revolution drove the tank. The tank ran a few hundred meters and stopped due to lack of fuel. The driver was arrested.

Meanwhile, prime minister Gyurcsány did not intend to step down from the post.  At the beginning of October, parliament gave him a vote of confidence. He resigned only in March 2009, during the deepening economic crisis in Hungary, and after the Liberals’ decision to leave the government coalition, which meant the loss of the parliamentary majority for Gyurcsány. From that time, Gordon Bajnai’s “technocratic government” ruled for a year in Hungary.

In the 2010 elections, Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance won the majority (52.73%) in the parliament. The support for the Gyurcsány party dropped from 43% to 19%.

Poland

The Polish “Game of Tapes” broke out in June 2014, when the Wprost weekly published transcripts of conversations between politicians and entrepreneurs illegally wiretapped in three Warsaw restaurants.

The then minister of interior Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, former head of the National Bank of Poland (NBP) Marek Belka, former minister of transport, construction and maritime economy Sławomir Nowak were amongst the ones wiretapped. Moreover, one of the richest Polish entrepreneurs, Jan Kulczyk, former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former prime minister Leszek Miller and the then chairman of Bank Zachodni WBK, and the current Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki were also recorded on the tapes.

The recordings or their transcripts were published in the largest Polish media from June 2014 to the end of 2018. In the first published conversation, Marek Belka talked with minister Sienkiewicz about the contract between the National Bank of Poland and the government on financing the budget deficit.

“But then my condition is the resignation of the minister of finance. There will be a new minister, for now, I do not have to tell you who it could be, but such names and people are in the country.  And then we will do what it takes to prevent, briefly speaking, that the country will understand it”, Belka said. The second condition presented was the amendment of the Act on the National Bank of Poland. The prosecutor’s office opened an investigation regarding that conversation a few days after. It was shut down in 2014. Inquiries regarding other recorded conversations were also opened.

After revealing the wiretapped conversations, the opposition demanded the resignation of Donald Tusk government, as well as the head of the NBP. Tusk said that he would not resign because it would be an act dictated by criminals who wanted to destabilize the state. On June 25, 2014, the prime minister filed a confidence motion for his government, and he received votes of confidence from the parliament on the same day. The next day the opposition filed a no-confidence motion against Tusk government. The parliament rejected the motion in July. In September Ewa Kopacz became the new prime minister replacing Donald Tusk, who was elected the President of the European Council. The parliamentary elections in autumn 2015 were won by the opposition party Law and Justice and their coalition allies. The Civic Platform, the party of Tusk and Kopacz, lost and became the second force in the parliament.

The prosecution detained four people involved the scandal, including entrepreneur Marek Falenta and two waiters from a restaurant in which politicians were bugged. Men were accused of illegal wiretapping. In December 2016, Falenta was sentenced to 2,5 years of imprisonment. The waiters were sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment suspended for three years and fines.

On February 1, 2019, Falenta did not appear in prison to serve the sentence. From then on, he started to hid and was wanted by the police. He was detained on April 5, 2019, near Valencia in Spain. The journalistic investigation, described in September 2018, revealed Falenta’s connections with the Russian secret service, including people close to Vladimir Putin.

USA

“Michael Cohen Secretly Taped Trump Discussing Payment to Playboy Model” was the title of the article in The New York Times. That is how the scandal around Donald Trump broke out (and it was not the first one) about paying women to keep quiet. Women, who know matters not really comfortable for the American President.

Michael Cohen was Trump’s lawyer, considered to be his confidant and one of his most trusted people. The men were talking about paying the model Karen McDougal, with whom Trump was supposed to have an affair shortly after his wife Melania gave birth to his son Barron (born in 2006). Making the romance a public affair could have potentially harmed Trump’s chances in the ongoing presidential campaign.

The conversation took place in 2016, but the FBI got the recording in 2018 when the agency searched Cohen’s office. In July 2016, the tapes were made public in the media. The judicial system was already investigating Cohen’s involvement in paying women Trump wanted to “silence” before the election. The prosecutors were to investigate whether Trump and Cohen had broken the rules regarding campaign financing.

Investigators managed to find out that American Media Inc. company, the publisher of the weekly The National Enquirer, agreed with Michael Cohen and “at least one more member of political staff” [according to NBC, CNN and “The Wall Street Journal” it was Trump himself] that Cohen was up to take care of negative stories about Trump’s relationships and help to identify similar stories. It was all about buying rights to these stories and then block possible publications.

And that’s what happened. Karen McDougal sold the romance story with Trump to “The National Enquirer” magazine for USD 150,000 and the newspaper blocked its publication. This practice is called “catch and kill”.

Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison in December 2018 for fraud and violation of rules regarding campaign financing. It concerned, among others, payments to McDougal and to another alleged mistress of Donald Trump, an actress and pornographic movies director, Stormy Daniels.

Peru

It was supposed to be a drug-related matter. However, it turned out that a big corruption scandal was by accident discovered in the Peruvian judicial system.

In 2017, prosecutors got court permission to wiretap several phones whose owners were to be linked to drug trafficking. At the beginning he investigators had no idea who they were bugging they only knew phone numbers. It quickly turned out that representatives of the Peruvian judicial system were among those who were bugged. For example Walter Ríos, for example, a chief judge of the Supreme Court in the city of Callao, as well as César José Hinostroza Pariachi, one of the judges of the Supreme Court of Peru. Besides, there were representatives of Congress of the Republic of Peru and business elites among the wiretapped ones, as well as members of the National Board of Justice [El Consejo Nacional de la Magistratura], an institution responsible, among others, for supervising prominent court officials.

It turned out that the majority of recorded conversations did not concern drug trafficking at all, but it was a testimony to corrupt practices among representatives of the judicial system. One of the recordings, published by IDL-Reporteros website, recorded in April 2018, indicated that César José Hinostroza Pariachi, judge of the Supreme Court of Peru, was discussing rigging the case related to child rape.

“What do they want? That he would reduce the sentence, or the accused would not be found guilty?” asked Hinostroza.

The La República newspaper, on the other hand, published transcripts of recordings indicating that Walter Ríos, the Supreme Court of Callao judge, took bribes cash and gifts in exchange for influencing court actions. Recorded conversations showed the scale and the ways of illegal practices in the Peruvian judicial system. In one of the talks, Ríos convinces his colleague to promote one of the employees recommended by the “powerful member of the judiciary”.

“Today, in this small world called the judicial system… the word “power” is not for the innocent ones. In a sense, in this system, we respond to the requests of some friends who ask us for certain things”, said Ríos to his interlocutor.

As a result of the scandal, many wiretapped representatives of the judicial system gave up their functions. Peruvian president Martín Vizcarra said his administration would form a commission to make recommendations for the creation of an “effective, timely, transparent, efficient and incorruptible” judicial system.

On July 18, 2018, the judicial department declared a 90-day state of emergency to reform the judicial system. On July 19 the president of the Supreme Court of Peru, Duberlí Apolinar Rodríguez Tineo resigned. On July 20, Congress of the Republic of Peru dismissed all the members of the National Board of Justice who were in the recordings and did not resign themselves.

Ukraine

The recordings, which largely contributed to the decline in the popularity of Leonid Kuchma and started protests against his further presence in Ukrainian politics, were revealed by the former security guard of the Ukrainian president, Mykola Melnychenko.

In 2000, Melnychenko left Ukraine and went West. In the same year he revealed recordings from the president’s office, which indicated that Kuchma could have ordered the murder of Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze. The journalist worked for the Ukrayinska Pravda and dealt with corruption at the highest levels of government. The man went missing in September 2000, and two months later his beheaded body was found in the forest near Kyiv. On tapes published in November 2000, you can hear Kuchma saying that Gongadze should disappear.

Revealing of recordings caused a wave of protests. There were demonstrations organized on the streets of Ukrainian cities. Kuchma opponents set up a tent city in Kyiv. The “Ukraine without Kuchma” social movement was also established. In 2001, the parliament tried several times to launch the impeachment procedure against the president. However, the trials were unsuccessful.

The result of the scandal was a drastic drop in the popularity of Kuchma from 60% to around 9%. Protests against the president became an impulse for the creation of opposition in Ukraine, which later led to the outbreak of the Orange Revolution in 2004.

In March 2011, Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine charged Leonid Kuchma of abuse of power  he was supposed to kill Gongadze by issuing unlawful orders to “people holding high positions” in the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. Kuchma argued that he had not ordered the murder of a journalist. Ultimately, in 2012, the investigation against the former president was closed the Supreme Court of Ukraine ruled that earlier decisions of lower courts (dated back to December 2011 and January 2012) on closing the investigation had been legally valid.

Turkey

In December 2013, a tape scandal broke out in Turkey. Four ministers lost their positions, but the then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remained in power. Moreover, his party won the local elections in 2014.

At the end of December, the prosecutor’s office revealed a massive corruption scandal involving sons of three ministers and a person from the Erdoğan government. After two months, the media released a recording dating back to December 17, 2013 prime minister Erdoğan was talking to his son Bilal and ordered him to hide the money (EUR 30 million and $ 25 million). During the conversation, Bilal informed that he did not manage to hide all the money.

After the publication of the recordings, Erdoğan argued that the conversation had been faked. He accused the prosecutor’s office of using illegal wiretapping during the investigation. Prime Minister also accused Fethullah Gülen, a religious leader. According to Erdoğan, Gülen wanted to build an influence network in Turkey, and the corruption scandal was supposed to reduce the chances of the ruling Justice and Development Party to win the local elections planned for the end of March 2014.

Not all citizens believed in all these explanations. Many people took to the streets demanding the prime minister’s resignation in Ankara and Istanbul. The police, using water cannons and tear gas, dispersed the protesters.

Eventually, the scandal did not prevent the Justice and Development Party from winning the local elections in March. In June 2014, Erdoğan took office as the President of Turkey. The corruption scandal was swept under the rug. Even before the elections, the parliamentary committee appointed for clarification the case ordered to destroy all evidence gathered during the investigation. The money secured was returned to the owners, including interest.