By Ralph Boulton
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - He has been feted in Arab states as the midwife of Islamic democracy. At home in Turkey, he strides the political stage unchallenged, a powerful army tamed, a hostile judiciary subdued, citizens savoring the taste of economic success.
Yet there are doubts about Tayyip Erdogan. Tucked away in an anonymous backstreet near Istanbul airport, the Sozcu (Spokesman) newspaper stands out in lampooning and criticizing the prime minister at a time when over 60 journalists are in pre-trial detention and once-outspoken newspapers appear cowed.
"Yes, we're a lifeboat," News Editor Ferda Ongun said in the daily's sparsely furnished offices. "Many of our journalists are people who can't get published any more in the big papers.
"But this boat has limited capacity," she said. "We need more boats."
Troubles for the media began in earnest in 2009 when Dogan Yayin Holding, then the most powerful media group and a forthright critic of Erdogan for his Islamist origins, was presented with a multi-billion dollar tax fine.
The tax dispute was settled after Dogan, which also has interests in energy, manufacturing and finance, sold two dailies and a key television channel as part, it said, of a routine restructuring. The government denied any political motivation.
Around the same time, investigation of a coup plot began to sprawl, drawing in many journalists besides businessmen, academics and military. What had at first been welcomed by rights activists as a bid to root out the dark forces of an entrenched hardline security establishment, known popularly as the "Deep State", seemed then to take on a darker aspect.
For many in the media especially, events gave pause for thought about a party that has swept three elections since 2002 and a leader who looks set to stay in office for many years yet.
"It's not that you think about every word and sentence you write, but it's a kind of self-censorship," a journalist at one of the major newspapers said. "At the back of your mind you're thinking whether you'll upset a minister and what might happen.
"Creating the feeling is more important than what actually might be done against you...You see Sozcu getting away with it, and I'm surprised they're not touched."
OPPOSITION IN DISARRAY
The day's Sozcu carried a cartoon poking fun at the famously brittle Erdogan for complaining that a picture of him adorning the front page of the U.S. Time magazine - a distinction most would welcome - conveyed too severe an image.
The sketch showed Erdogan grinning contentedly at a redacted and smiling image of him replete with rippling superman muscles.
Egemen Bagis, a senior cabinet minister, said Erdogan's popularity spoke for itself. It has indeed steadily grown since a newly formed AK Party drove established parties into oblivion in 2002 polls after years of corruption scandals, squabbling, abandoned IMF rescue programs and economic crisis.
If Erdogan lacks for a political opposition, said Bagis, that is scarcely Erdogan's fault. If Turks doubted AK, they would demolish it as they had other parties nine years ago.
"We're not responsible for their internal disputes... Erdogan's given his nation a sense of pride and honor that comes of self-confidence, economic and democratic."
Bagis said the detention of journalists and others for months without trial over the alleged "Ergenekon" plot, and the separate military "Sledgehammer" coup conspiracy, was the result of a slow, inefficient judiciary that needed reform.
"We're working on it," he said, sitting in his Istanbul office close to the Bosphorus waterway.
"I'm 100 percent sure this has nothing to do with the AK Party because I know Tayyip Erdogan himself is not comfortable with these detentions."
Critics say the party has had long enough to reform anti-terrorism laws invoked in Ergenekon -- a tangled conspiracy to trigger, through bombings and assassinations, a military coup against a premier suspected by a conservative establishment of Islamist ambitions.
Anti-terrorism laws remain vaguely written, giving judges broad freedom of interpretation on what constitutes propagating terrorism. The Turkish judiciary, moreover, has traditionally prized the security of the state over individual rights.
"TURKEY NOT CHINA"
One particularly celebrated Ergenekon case is that of Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, mainstream investigative journalists arrested in March and held since, along with other suspects in Istanbul's Silivri top-security prison.
Sener's lawyer Nurcan Bayraktar said the journalist, who himself worked on the Ergenekon case, had his telephone tapped after an anonymous email tipoff to police in 2009. Around two years later he was arrested at his home on suspicion of being part of the plot -- something he denies.
He is accused of involvement in the writing of two books about the infiltration of the police by an Islamist sect, one by former police chief Hanefi Avci and one by Sik.
"I believe this case will be an indicator in terms of press freedom in the process of Turkey becoming a state of law," Bayraktar said. "I think the verdict ... will also be important in creating in society a feeling of confidence in justice."
Mustafa Akyol, author of a book 'Islam Without Extremes', disapproves of the way Sener and Sik have been treated but believes fears for democracy can be exaggerated. He sees no "AK state" in the making.
"This is not an authoritarian state like China," he said. "You can bash AK every day and not go to jail. Look at Sozcu."
Sozcu criticizes AK over moves to allow the Islamic headscarf in state institutions, its handling of an earthquake, efforts to forge a peace deal with Kurdish rebels, pursuit of charges against military commanders and accusations of cronyism.
Where does Sozcu draw its confidence?
"The difference is we have no business with the government, while others have," Metin Koklucinar of Sozcu said. "We're not bidding in tenders, in privatization ... Everyone knows what happened to Dogan."
Turkey's European Union candidacy may also play a role. Ankara can cite the paper's activities in arguing press freedom has been preserved.
CRITICISM TOLERATED FROM MINOR PLAYERS?
"If you have a small audience, you can say whatever you want, but if you have a large audience, like say main TV networks, you are quite limited in what you can say."
These were the words of Russian commentator Vladimir Pozner, talking about limits to press freedom in Vladimir Putin's Russia. While Turkey and Russia may not bear broader comparison, a similarity in the 'privileged' position of a small publication is intriguing.
"Some people say AK is too Islamist, or trying to take over the country," Akyol said. "I say AK isn't too Islamist but too Turkish, in the sense it perpetuates the classical problems of Turkish culture."
Modern Turkish political history is marked by an underlying authoritarianism. Party law entrenches party leaders, and the parties in turn have imposed its placemen on state institutions from the judiciary to education and, in various ways, the media.
AK, however, did not invent media taboos in Turkey. It banished many.
Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Edam think-tank, said for all the curbs of pre-AK times, political leaders were still at least held up for criticism in the media.
"Previously the taboos were about topics, like the army or Kurds. Now they're about criticizing the government or Erdogan."
AK sees its service in slashing the influence of generals who had pressed four governments from power in 40 years. Many saw the constant presence of the army as a brake to the maturity of Turkish politics. If all failed, there was always the army.
Sozcu, for its part, would be more sympathetic to that image of the army as a guarantor ultimately of secularism. It looks warily upon the treatment of senior serving and retired officers under Ergenekon and Sledgehammer.
"One of AK's goals was to replace the Deep State with democracy and that's what we are achieving," Bagis said. "I'm sure there are those who'd like those dark days back where there was torture and unsolved murders."
Rights groups have accused Turkey in the past of using torture especially in the southeast where an armed Kurdish rebellion has simmered with the loss of some 40,000 lives. AK has taken some steps to stop such abuses.
Rebel attacks continue after the breakdown of talks.
From the front page of Sozcu, the eyes of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the secular state nine decades ago, seem to look out skeptically on a changing Turkey.
A new constitution, replacing a basic law drawn up under army auspices after a 1980 coup, is expected to recreate the Turkish state. The centre of power will probably be a president rather than parliament.
The most likely candidate - Tayyip Erdogan.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)