Turkey: Politics of Identity and Power
Carol Migdalovitz - Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
August 13, 2010
The U.S. State Department and the European Union have long criticized Turkey for imposing legal limitations on freedom of expression. Increasing pro-government groups’ acquisition of formerly more independent media outlets and constraints on press freedom in particular have raised questions about Prime Minister Erdogan’s and the AKP government’s commitment to democratic values and whether it is attempting to squelch opposition voices. According to the annual State Department report on human rights practices in Turkey in 2009, “individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of criminal suits or government investigations.”47 This particular criticism did not appear in the previous State reports and may have resulted from the investigation and detention of journalists known to be ardent secularists and critics of the AKP in the Ergenekon probe. Moreover, pro-government forces, with family or business connections to Erdogan, have acquired control of the second-largest media conglomerate in the country.
In 2007, state banking regulators took over and then sold, with the assistance of generous loans from state banks, the Ciner publishing group to a company whose chief economic officer is the prime minister’s son-in-law. Its large circulation daily, Sabah, subsequently became another voice supportive of the government. Similarly loyal companies may now control about half of the media in the country. The other half may be considered independent or opposition in orientation. The case of the Dogan Media Group, the largest media conglomerate not controlled by government allies, may be a prime example of Erdogan’s sensitivity to criticism and of dangers to press freedom.
Dogan owns seven newspapers, including the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, Hurriyet, and Milliyet, as well as 28 magazines and three television channels, and engages in business in other fields, as do other media conglomerates. Owner Aydin Dogan had long used his media outlets to gain political influence for the benefit of his other businesses. In 2008, the Dogan press increasingly criticized the AKP government’s actions. They reported about some Erdogan family members’ business dealings and about a criminal case in Germany involving a Muslim charity (Lighthouse) accused of funneling money to the AKP in violation of a Turkish ban on foreign funding. In response, the prime minister castigated the Dogan Group publicly and called for a boycott of its outlets. This treatment was not new, as Erdogan previously had attacked other media owners, revoked the accreditation of journalist critics, sued cartoonists for
defamation, and called for other boycotts. In the Dogan case, Erdogan’s personal predilections may have waxed into government policy. In April 2008, the Ministry of Finance began a tax inspection of Dogan’s companies. In February 2009, it ordered Dogan Media to pay a penalty of approximately $490 million.48 In September, another penalty of approximately $2.6 billion was imposed. Aydin Dogan charged that this constituted an assault on freedom of the press and was the result of selective government enforcement.
Similarly, a European Commission spokesman stated, “When the sanction is of such magnitude that it threatens the existence of an entire press group … then freedom of the press is at stake.”49
Then-European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn observed, “If a tax fine is worth the annual turnover of the company, it is quite a strong sanction, and it may not only be a fiscal sanction but also it feels like a political sanction.”50
Several international press and human rights groups raised questions about the fine. The International Press Institute’s director said, “The timing and unprecedented size of this tax fine raise serious concerns that the authorities are changing their approach from rhetoric to using the state apparatus to harass the media…. The aim is not to punish the tax irregularity, but to liquidate the largest media group in the country.”51 Erdogan responded, “freedom of the press cannot be used as a means to shade smearing and slander.”52 Dogan newspapers have since made personnel changes and they, and other media, have muted their criticism of the government, although the case remains in the courts.
A chilling effect on freedom of the press may be at play. Concern about constraints on freedom of expression also has been voiced about internet censorship in Turkey. Authorities have banned some 5,000 websites for “inappropriate content.” The video-sharing site YouTube has been banned since 2008, and several Google services were banned in June 2010, provoking protests in Istanbul. The government has defended its actions as a way to prevent distribution of pornography and a response to tax delinquency. Reporters Sans
Frontiers classifies Turkey with less-democratic regimes, such as Russia, United Arab Emirates, and Eritrea, when it comes to internet censorship.53
As with the press, the larger issue involved is that of increasing government control over access to information from varied sources.
46 Rusen Cakir, “Let us say the Professional Army was a Success,” Vatan Online, July 15, 2010.
47 U.S. State Department, Bureau
48 The case involved a dispute concerning the date that Dogan sold a percentage of its television holdings to a German company. Dogan maintains that the sale occurred on January 2, 2007, while the Finance Ministry claims that it was done in 2006 and that the government is owed taxes that were evaded, plus a penalty charge. Yusuf Kanli, “Whose Turn will be Next?” Hurriyet Daily News.com, February 21, 2009.
49 “EU Slams Turkey over Media Group Fine,” Agence France Presse, September 11, 2009. 50 Stephen Castle and Sebnem Arsu, “Europeans Criticize Turkey over Threats to Media Freedom,” New York Times, October 15, 2009.
51 International Press Institute, Press Release, February 20, 2009, BBC Monitoring Media, February 23, 2009.
52 BBC Monitoring, “Turkish Dogan Group Tax Penalty Termed ‘Assault’ on Media Freedom,” February 23, 2009, Open Source Center Document GMP20090223950045.
53 Cinar Kiper, “Roundup: Turks Start to Organize Against Internet Censorship,” Xinhua News Agency, July 17, 2010.