Role reversal in Turkey

Sunday, September 13, 2009
The Doğan (pronounced "Doe-on") Media Group, which is the largest media group in Turkey (controlling Hüriyet, Milliyet, the Turkish Daily News, CNN-Türk, and a number of other media outlets) has been hit with a $2.5 billion tax bill. This penalty could very well put the company out of business, and the Turkey-watching punditry is wondering what this event could mean for freedom of the press in Turkey.

Concern regarding the government's motives in assessing the media company stems from the very public personal animosity that has been brewing for over a year between Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erd
oğan and Doğan Group owner and political power-broker Aydin Doğan.  While the Doğan-controlled media actually used to be rather cozy with the AK Party government, this all changed in late 2008. Many people think that this is because of Doğan media outlets aggressively covering the Deniz Feneri corruption scandal, which implicated many people in the AK Party. (In my personal opinion, this reporting was clearly an important step in the feud but who knows what actually kicked it off--I'm sure there's plenty about the AK Party-Doğan Group relationship that we know nothing about). 
The tax assessment is thus starting to appear to many observers of Turkey as a punitive measure against a media baron who has, over the past year, repeatedly spoken out against Turkey AK Party government in general and Prime Minister Erdoğan in particular. 

Aydın Doğan

Anyway, the Doğan story is getting play these days  in the Turkey-related blogosphere. Jenny White writes about it a little and links to Yigal Schleifer, who writes more.
Comparisons with Vladimir Putin's record of interfering with the press in Russia are becoming more popular in the American media. Bloomberg made the connection back in June, while both Schleifer and the writers of a New York Times story on the Doğan case make similar allusions.

Indeed, I made this comparison back in February when I posted a story on the
Doğan case as the first part of the Turkish media and politics trilogy. It's nice to see that others agree with me on the Putin analogy, but it would be even nicer if these folks began discussing the broader pattern of government involvement in the media in Turkey into the context of which the Doğan case should be placed.

The $2.5 billion fine that the government has levied on the
Doğan Group could, after all, very well place the company in government receivership, which means the company would be taken over by the state and then privatized--i.e., sold on the free market by the government.

As I wrote back in February, the last time something like this happened was back in 2007, when the second-largest (after the
Doğan Group) media organization in Turkey, ATV-Sabah, was likewise placed in receivership and sold to the highest bidder (as far as I know, there was nothing notably fishy about the company's bankruptcy). The highest bidder ended up being an organization named Çalık Holding, which was headed by none other than Prime Minister Erdoğan's son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. This company was also reportedly somehow able to receive funding from Vakıf Bank--a government-owned entity--for assistance in making this bid. This would mean that a publicly-owned bank was bankrolling a privately-owned company headed by the Prime Minister's son-in-law to make a purchase from the state. I'm no expert on the Turkish business legal code, but that doesn't look good. 
It's also worth mentioning that Prime Minister Erdoğan has personally leveled lawsuits against cartoonists and journalists who have criticized and mocked him. Indeed, Erdoğan has even sued, on more than one occasion, the leader of the parliamentary opposition in Turkey, Deniz Baykal, for character defamation. The most recent time this happened was when Baykal appeared to be calling Eroğan a "maganda," a put-down in Turkey which is tantamount to calling someone an uncultured loudmouth.

Finally and, in my opinion, most importantly, numerous opposition journalists have been arrested over the past two years as part of the Ergenekon investigation. Mustafa Balbay is just one of numerous journalists, academics, and military figures whose arrest and detainment has attracted cries of foul.
So there's actually a lot more to what is happening in Turkey regarding the government's relationship with the Doğan Group than is being talked about in the coverage of this story. This isn't, I think, about just one company.

Of course, the Turkish media scene was hardly pristine before these events. Back in the 1990s the
Doğan Group and its ATV-Sabah rival both owned several important newspapers and television stations at a time when there were numerous--though not yet dozens or hundreds--of non-cable television channels in Turkey. And now one (and perhaps, soon, both) of these two former titans is owned, seemingly, by the party in power--talk about a reversal of roles from the 1990s! Putin, I should mention, likewise managed to reverse the power roles in his country between political leaders and financial oligarchs. 
Yes, there have been lots of examples in Turkey of media organs allying themselves with a party and only telling one side of a story. But collectively, there are a lot of viewpoints that can be heard. There are limits on the freedom of expression in Turkey with regard to a number of issues, but at the same time there are a lot of people in Turkey who believe earnestly in freedom of expression, human rights, and democracy--and many of these people are, by the way, journalists.

And while Andrew Finkel and others may see Turkish journalists as unprofessional, it's important to remember that a lot of journalists in Turkey have been murdered (and many more imprisoned) simply for expressing their ideas. Yes, I would definitely use the term unprofessional to describe many of the actions undertaken by people calling themselves journalists in Turkey, but at the same time journalists in Turkey are not operating in a context that is completely analogous to that of most of the non-Turks who editorialize on Turkey.

When I was living in Turkey in the 1990s, many ugly things happened with respect to politics--the Susurluk scandal and cover-up, Tansu
Çiller's antics, and the military intervention of 1997 being only the most notorious. However, the 1990s were nevertheless an era of media expansion. Sure, the Sabah-ATV and Doğan groups were considered to be allied with political parties, and corruption was seen almost everywhere. But I do not recall there ever having been a systematic government assault on the independent media. This, I would think, would be an innovation that the media scene has not witnessed since the vast expansion in television media that began occurring in Turkey in the early 1990s.

At the present day, it's hard to imagine Turkey's fractious but vibrant media scene being silenced. But it's worth remembering that, for a period of about ten years, the
Russian media were likewise fractious and occasionally unprofessional, but also critical, muckraking, and eager to break a story. In a relatively short period of time, the Russian media were transformed into uncontroversial transmitters of events, providing (largely) editorial-free reporting of the daily activities of the president and (since Putin became Prime Minister) those of the Prime Minister as well. The late Soviet and Yeltsin-era media were seemingly uncontrollable, but the wild ones were put down within a relatively short span of time. 

I hope this isn't what is being attempted in Turkey. If such a thing were attempted, I think it would fail--Turkey has a much longer history of press and personal freedom than Russia. But even an unsuccessful attempt at this kind of authoritarianism could exact a heavy social cost.

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