Monday, 18 January 2010

As Dogan Yields, Turkish Media Freedom Plummets

Published in Articles

By Svante E. Cornell (vol. 3, no. 1 of the Turkey Analyst) 

BACKGROUND: On December 29, 2009, Ertuğrul Özkök resigned from his post as Editor-in-Chief for 20 years of Hürriyet, DMG’s flagship publication and one of Turkey’s most-read newspapers. The very next day, Aydın Doğan resigned as Chairman of the Board of Doğan Holding, DMG’s mother company. These events happen a week after news reports suggested DMG was about to sell three major DMG assets to the pro-AKP Ipek Group. These events are not occurring in isolation. Indeed, they are the culmination of a trend.

Turkey’s media landscape suffers from numerous flaws. Chief among these is the dominance of large holding companies over the media landscape. As a result, major newspapers and television channels are owned by firms with broad and substantial economic interests. For many, winning government tenders is a chief objective. This means that owners of media outlets seldom see these as their main preoccupation, but often as assets they can use for leverage – either by using their assets to pressure incumbents to win favors – or by appeasing the powers that be. 

Given the unsavory nature of Turkish big business, this ownership structure also means that Turkey’s largest media outlets have been controlled by rather unsavory business figures. The Uzan family, which stands accused of defrauding Motorola of billions a decade ago, is one example; Aydın Doğan is another.

However, the main issue in Turkey’s media landscape is not the Uzans and Doğans – or even the fact that they may have contributed significantly to digging the hole they found themselves in. The issue is whether the transfers of ownership that have taken place over the past half decade amount to a systematic campaign against the freedom of the press.

In 2004, the state’s Savings Deposits Insurance Fund (SDIF) seized the Star newspaper and television channel, owned by tycoon Cem Uzan, together with most of the family’s assets. The controversial Uzan family had long developed a reputation of notoriety both within and outside the country. However, Uzan had also created a political party, the “Genç Partisi” (The Youth party), which became a challenger to the AKP in the 2002 elections. Following the AKP’s victory in those elections, Uzan’s populist party was the only one that kept growing in popularity, prompting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to state in spring 2003 that “our only rival is the Youth Party”. At the time, the image of the AKP was a party pushing some of the most democratic reforms in Turkey’s modern history, while Uzan’s was that of a crook. Consequently, there was little in terms of a domestic or international reaction: most people felt Uzan had it coming. The Star TV channel was sold to DMG, then in good terms with the government, while the newspaper was acquired by a pro-AKP business group with close connections to Northern Cyprus. 

Until 2007, the major media outlets kept relatively cordial relations with the government, which retained support from the Turkish liberal intelligentsia. Only with the 2007 political crisis did a measure of criticism arise from the media’s ranks. As the crisis deepened, the pace of ownership changes of media outlets accelerated. (See Turkey Analyst, June 4 issue)

In 2007, the SDIF put the Sabah/ATV group – the country’s second largest – up for auction, having seized it several months earlier following alleged wrongdoing by its owners. The single bidder was Çalık Energy, a firm with close ties to the AKP, in which Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son-in-law was a chief executive. The deal was financed by loans from two government banks, and additional funds from Qatar for which President Abdullah Gül had personally lobbied. This deal did begin to raise eyebrows in Turkey.

The same year, the government began to put pressure on Kanaltürk, owned by maverick businessman, journalist and nationalist politician Tuncay Özkan, who was later to be prosecuted and jailed under the controversial Ergenekon investigation into alleged coup-plotters. The channel’s news coverage was banned for a week due to its allegedly biased reporting on the government. In May 2008, a few months before Özkan was jailed, he was intimidated to sell the channel to the Ipek group.

In 2008, a court in Frankfurt, Germany, implicated several officials close to Prime Minister Erdoğan in an embezzlement case, in which 16 million Euros gathered by Turkish charities in Europe had been diverted to fund, among other, the pro-AKP Kanal 7 television station – shedding light on the practices that critics of the Islamic conservative movement in Turkey had long argued were being used to bolster political Islam. 

Until this point, the position of the DMG had evolved from that of an active supporter of the AKP (during 2002-2007) to one of relative neutrality. The leading publicist of the group, Ertuğrul Özkök, had become increasingly critical, while several of the country’s most influential liberal, pro-AKP commentators, such as Hasan Cemal and Cengiz Çandar, were DMG employees. DMG outlets nevertheless prominently covered the Frankfurt court case, known as Deniz Feneri. This led Prime Minister Erdoğan to publicly accuse DMG owner Aydin Doğan of blackmail, and to urge all his supporters to boycott DMG outlets. Tax inspectors soon appeared in DMG companies. During 2009, tax authorities then imposed fines totaling over US$3 billion on the DMG. By October, Doğan announced several of the media outlets would be sold to handle the company’s crisis – specifically, Milliyet, Vatan, and Star TV. After having unsuccessfully sought to sell these to Germany’s Axel Springer GmbH, widespread reports suggested the buyer would instead be the Ipek group – run by tycoon Akın Ipek, who is known for his close ties both with the AKP and the Fethullah Gülen community. Meanwhile, prosecutors charged Doğan and three other board members of Doğan Holding for allegedly having purposefully damaged the firm’s financial standing, urging for prison sentences of up to several years.

IMPLICATIONS: Meanwhile, pro-government media groups have been spared from the SDIF’s takeovers, and tax inspectors have not showed similar levels of interest for alleged irregularities in these groups. This is the case even for Kanal 7 and outlets implicated by German courts in the Deniz Feneri case. Thus, taken together, the events summarized suggest a purposeful two-pronged campaign on the part of the AKP and its allies to remake the Turkish media landscape in their own image. The first element is a systematic transfer of ownership of major media assets to pro-government groups, leading to intimidation of remaining critical media outlets; the second is the growth of new, pro-government media outlets that often but not always share the AKP’s Islamic conservative outlook, and which appear in some cases to have been financed through illegal means. 

The interaction between politics and media is certainly not new to Turkey: the late Prime Minister and President Turgut Özal, for example, sought to build up a friendly media constituency. But even Özal, in spite of his dominance of Turkish politics, was unable to avoid a loud and critical media voice that scrutinized his policies and actions. 

It should be noted that the freedom of the media is by no means threatened only by the AKP-inspired makeover of the media landscape. The old authoritarianism asserts itself as well. In December 2009, Şamil Tayyar, a columnist with the now pro-government daily Star, was handed an 18-month prison sentence after having published a book that discloses information about the former general Veli Kücük, one of the main suspects in the Ergenekon investigation. Mehmet Baransu, a journalist in the liberal daily Taraf, was recently brought before a court after having disclosed an alleged coup plot within the military, with the prosecutor demanding that he be arrested. Although the court ruled against the prosecutor, the very fact that Baransu came close to being put behind bars, as well as Tayyar’s prison sentence, serve as reminders that it is not risk-free for reporters to report on the military and on alleged coup conspirators.

"If we go quiet ... who will speak?"

Nevertheless, the makeover of the media landscape during the AKP’s tenure in power stands out as incomparable in magnitude and scope to anything in modern Turkish history. The conclusion that imposes itself is that there is an attempt on the part of the government to secure ideological hegemony by acquiring control over major media outlets. Meanwhile, money is being pumped into pro-government media outlets – whether Islamic-minded such as Kanal 7, the Zamannewspaper and its English subsidiary Today’s Zaman, or the anti-military and self-avowedly liberal Taraf.

The makeover of the media landscape  has aggravated the already existing practice of self-censorship in Turkey. Owners and editors of the remaining independent media outlets can now be assumed to think twice and hard before reporting on news stories detrimental to the AKP, or Islamic conservatism.

This does not mean that critical voices are being totally silenced, but that they are being marginalized. The fiercely anti-governmentCumhuriyet is allowed to exist, much like Ekho Moskvy continues to broadcast critical stories in Putin’s Russia. Indeed, on media issues, the AKP seems to be paying closer heed to the Putin model in Russia, rather than striving for European-style media freedom. 

CONCLUSIONS: Given the importance that Western powers normally accord to media freedoms, their silence to developments in Turkey is puzzling – in spite of the obvious and highly negative implications of the reduction in media freedoms on Turkey’s EU membership prospects. The European Commission did express concern regarding the fines against the DMG; but on the higher political level, there is no sign that media freedom is a key message that U.S. and EU officials raise at the highest levels with their Turkish counterparts.

One reason for this may be the lack of a domestic critique, on the part of the opposition, of the AKP based on a liberal democratic vision for Turkey’s future. It is by now beyond doubt that the AKP is in the process of securing an ideological hegemony through its media policies, which runs counter to pluralism and democratization. However, that case needs to be made from a liberal vantage point. As long as the political opposition in Turkey is seen to be motivated principally by the desire to defend the old, illiberal system that itself suppressed media freedom through legal means, the very legitimate worries that Turkey faces a “postmodern” version of authoritarianism will fail to get the impact – in Turkey as well as internationally – that they deserve.

Nevertheless, that should not be a cause for complacency. Turkey’s friends in the West may be hoping against hope that the events in the media landscape do not amount to a systematic onslaught against the independent media. But ignoring these events is not, as the saying goes, a way to treat a friend. It is a recipe for disaster down the road, as a democratic downturn in Turkey will not help the cause of those wishing to see Turkey as a reliable Western ally integrated with Europe.

Svante E. Cornell is Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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