The Sultan Likes His Press Meek

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan particularly objects to the newspapers published by the Dogan Group, above all during the current campaign. The media group is now threatened by a tax fine so huge that its very existence is at risk. Karen Krüger reports

​​ No, he has nothing to do with the four-hundred-million-euro tax penalty being demanded from the Dogan media group. And yes, of course the Finance Ministry is imposing the fine and became aware of the Dogan file completely on its own initiative. On his campaign tour through the eastern part of Turkey, the Turkish Prime Minister could be sure his listeners would believe his story. But amongst Turkish journalists and opposition members, suspicion is still rampant that exactly the opposite is true.

The record-high penalty smacks too much of revenge; it's all just a bit too convenient for the ruling AKP Party at this particular moment in time. After all, at the end of March local elections will take place in Turkey, and the "Sultan", as the newspapers in the Dogan Group like to call Tayyip Erdogan, naturally wants to see his party win. Critical journalists could very well upset the results. Especially if they work for a company that publishes the best-selling newspapers in the country.

Fine could break publisher's back

With "Hürriyet", "Milliyet" and five additional papers, Dogan Holding produces nearly forty percent of Turkey's daily newspaper output. In the company's publications, journalists voice sentiments they would never dare to utter elsewhere: that the goal of the AKP regime is an insidious Islamisation of society; that former Islamist Erdogan, despite his conversion to democratic principles, might still have a hidden agenda.

Hürriyet edition at a newsstand (photo: dpa)
The "Dogan Yayin Holding" is Turkey's leading media group with revenues of some 1.5 billion euros and 13,000 employees

​​ The newspaper "Radikal", likewise a product of the Dogan Group, has long since become required reading for Turkish intellectuals. This is where columnists such as the writer Perihan Magden regularly publish scathing critiques of the current government. Dogan is confusing "defamation, vilification and the spreading of lies with freedom of opinion", says Erdogan.

Officially, the fiscal authorities are punishing Dogan for an offence it committed when it sold some company shares to Axel Springer AG at the end of 2006. Instead of booking the resulting proceeds in December, it did not do so until January – in order to evade taxes, the Revenue Office says. What is unusual in this case is the amount of the fine Dogan is being forced to pay. It is tantamount to a confiscation of the company, wrote "Hürriyet" columnist Fikret Bila.

The firm has announced that it will appeal the decision – but if it is not successful, the affair could break its back.

Fraught relationship with the media

In its report on Turkey last November, the EU Commission indicated that freedom of the press is at risk in the country. And in fact the administration of Tayyip Erdogan has an extremely poor track record in its relations with the media.

In past years the regime has forced the break-up of several media groups, while well-known newspapers and television stations were bought up by companies that support the AKP Party – resulting in closed-lip reporting that doesn't question the party line. Sabah-ATV, the second largest media group in Turkey, became the property of a subsidiary of Calik Holding, whose managing director just happens to be Erdogan's son-in-law.

Now it looks like it's Dogan Holding's turn. The company's newspapers have long been a thorn in the side of the Prime Minister.

Incendiary speech before parliament

Six months ago Erdogan used up thirty minutes of a speech before parliament to condemn Dogan Holding – in the Prime Minister's view the company's newspapers had unjustifiably criticised the attempt to rescind the headscarf ban at the universities.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: AP)
Poor track record in its relations with the media: Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan and his AKP

​​ Erdogan took special offence at a lead story in "Hürriyet" that quoted criticisms voiced in the "New York Times", "Le Monde" and "Washington Post" – vehicles he characterised as unreliable.

But the situation really escalated in autumn 2008 after Dogan newspapers reported on several occasions on the AKP's entanglement in the fund-raising scandal involving the German-Turkish welfare society Leuchtturm e.V.

The Frankfurt District Court had discovered that the association had let 14.5 million euros in charitable donations disappear into Erdogan-friendly channels.

After newspapers including "Hürriyet" reported on the affair, Erdogan repeatedly called for a boycott of the Dogan media. "Don't give them any money", he said in an address, and: "Don't let them into your homes." He challenged the Dogan newspapers to reveal their true motives for reporting on this scandal; otherwise he would do it, he threatened.

Journalists beaten by angry mob

When the "International Press Institute" reprimanded Erdogan for his conduct, the Prime Minister forbid them from interfering. No one should be allowed to criticise him for how he handles the largest news organisation in his country. But Dogan is not the only one suffering under the questionable behaviour of the "Sultan".

In a public speech in late January, Erdogan berated journalists for painting a distorted picture of the Gaza War. Thus fired up, the mob turned on and attacked the reporters and photographers present at the event. When the Prime Minister officially opened an Istanbul metro station a few days later, journalists were once again beaten by the raging crowd.

The press would "rather stand up for others than for the Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic", Erdogan had said in his address. It's not hard to see why.

Karen Krüger

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung / 2009

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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