* Journalist works on paper close to influential cleric
* Government says did not order deportation
* Turkey under fire for strict internet controls
* Row comes as government battles corruption scandal
(Adds AK Party deputy resigning)
By Humeyra Pamuk and Dasha Afanasieva
ISTANBUL, Feb 7 A Turkish newspaper said on
Friday one of its journalists had been ordered to leave the
country for criticising Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on
Twitter, raising concerns about media freedom a day after Turkey
tightened internet controls.
Today's Zaman said its online editor Mahir Zeynalov, 27,
from Azerbaijan, was escorted onto a plane in Istanbul by
police. The paper is close to influential U.S.-based preacher
Fethullah Gulen, locked in a feud with Erdogan revolving around
a corruption scandal shaking his government.
Erdogan has cast the scandal as a bid by Gulen, who exerts
extensive if covert influence in the police and judiciary, to
unseat him and has responded by purging thousands of officers
and more than 200 prosecutors. Gulen denies the accusation.
His feud with Gulen, a former ally, has damaged Erdogan
ahead of local and presidential elections this year. Ilhan
Isbilen, a member of parliament known for his ties with the
cleric, became on Friday the latest of half a dozen politicians
to quit Erdogan's AK Party, citing its split with Gulen.
"A body linked to the prime minister received a tip that I
insulted high-level officials and informed the Interior Ministry
(which) decided to deport me," Zeynalov said by phone from the
Azeri capital Baku, adding his application to renew his permit
to work as a journalist in Turkey had been denied last month.
Zeynalov said he had turned himself in at Istanbul airport
and been ordered to pay a 103 lira ($46) fine before being put
on a plane out of Turkey.
An aide to Erdogan said no instructions had been given from
the prime minister's office regarding Zeynalov. The Foreign
Ministry said it had no information, while the Interior Ministry
could not be reached for comment.
"This is an utterly despotic and arbitrary decision," said
Bulent Kenes, editor in chief of Today's Zaman. "We don't see it
as an attack against our paper, it's an attempt to intimidate
all foreign journalists working in Turkey."
He said Zeynalov - who had in the past been an outspoken
supporter of the government, even defending the jailing of some
journalists - would continue his work from Baku.
Lawyers for Erdogan filed a complaint against Zeynalov in
December over two tweets in which he said the prime minister had
interfered in a judicial process by seeking to block the arrest
of suspected al Qaeda affiliates, Today's Zaman said.
Zeynalov's tweets constitute a "blunt assault on Erdogan's
honour and reputation and his personal rights", the premier's
lawyers said in a petition submitted to the Ankara Public
Prosecutor's Office, according to Today's Zaman.
Erdogan's supporters say efforts to portray the government
as facilitating the rise of al Qaeda in Syria's civil war, by
doing too little to prevent weapons and fighters crossing the
border, is part of the Gulen-led effort to undermine him.
Posts on the Twitter account AK Kulis, an unofficial channel
of support for Erdogan's AK Party with 77,000 followers, accused
Zeynalov of deliberately failing to extend his accreditation so
that he would face deportation and could play the victim.
Turkey's record on media freedom has long been under
scrutiny and is among the obstacles to it reaching its ambition
of joining the European Union.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe
(OSCE) said Zeynalov's deportation "for tweets considered
inappropriate by the authorities" was a setback for Turkey.
Erdogan's government is under fire from the opposition and
the EU after parliament approved tighter internet controls on
Wednesday, enabling web pages to be blocked within hours and
individuals' browsing histories to be stored by the authorities
for up to two years.
Social media and video sharing sites have been awash with
alleged recordings of ministers including Erdogan and business
allies presented as proof of wrongdoing in the corruption
scandal. Reuters has been unable to verify their authenticity.
Turkey already has strict internet laws under which
thousands of websites have been blocked, from news portals
viewed as close to Kurdish militants to gay dating sites.
Google Legal Director Susan Infantino said in a
December report that the firm had seen the number of requests
from Turkish authorities to remove content from its platforms
rise nearly tenfold in the first half of last year.
In the six months to the end of June 2013, it was asked to
delete more than 12,000 items, making Turkey the top country on
its "request to remove content" list, the report said.
Google and Facebook both declined to comment on the
latest internet reforms in Turkey, while Twitter did
not respond to a request for comment.
The government says the law, sent to parliament before the
corruption scandal erupted but broadened in recent weeks, is
aimed at protecting individual privacy, not gagging its critics.
(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul, Tulay
Karadeniz and Gulsen Solaker in Ankara and Conor Humphries in
Dublin; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Gareth Jones)