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TURKEY: High-stakes political battle pits media mogul against premier Tayyip Erdogan

December 8, 2009 |  7:54 am


Last year, the smash-hit Turkish soap opera Noor spellbound millions of viewers across Turkey and the Arab world.

These days, a new media drama is gripping the nation anew with its juicy ingredients of money, power and famous main characters.

For more than a year now, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish media boss Aydin Dogan have been engaged in a catty, public row over the critical news coverage aired by Dogan’s powerful media organization, Dogan Yayin Holding, which controls more than half of Turkey’s media market.

The media boss has positioned himself as a staunch and vocal critic of the ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP. He has irked the prime minister on several occasions with his media group reporting aggressively on corruption scandals involving prominent figures and framing Erdogan's government as a threat to the secular order in Turkey.

In response, Erdogan has lashed out at Dogan several times and makes no effort to hide his deep dislike for the media boss. Most recently, Erdogan likened his foe to Italian American gangster Al Capone.

The media war has become a top news item in the Turkish media. This fall Turkish authorities slammed Dogan with a record $ 3.2-billion fine for alleged tax evasion.

Things went even more sour last month when talks between Dogan and the Turkish tax authorities to settle the gigantic fine failed. Now Dogan will have to fight a fierce court battle against the fine imposed on his media group.

Dogan appears already to have taken a bit of a hit from the row. Fresh on the heels of the failed settlement talks, German publisher Axel Springer announced it had frozen its plan to buy a 29% stake in the Dogan group, debunking a theory that Dogan’s powerful German friends would come to the rescue.

The lawsuit against Dogan has raised concerns among various groups, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who say the tax fine threatens media pluralism in Turkey.

The hefty fine and Dogan’s critical news coverage feed suspicions that the case is politically motivated and that Erdogan is trying to quash his foe by taxing him to death.

There is also the belief that the government's alleged campaign against Dogan is derailing Turkey's chances of joining the European Union.

But Erdogan appears defiant, dismissing allegations that he's pursuing a political vendetta.

"I have no thoughts of applying political or economic pressure on the media, but certain media establishments have no right to see themselves above the law," the Financial Times quoted him as saying.

Not everyone feels pity for Dogan. There are those who believe the 73-year-old media conglomerate is getting what he deserves.

Whereas Dogan's supporters portray him as a martyr of free speech, his opponents speak of a shrewd businessman who went into the media sector with the sole aim of gaining political influence and winning favors.

Sahin Alpay, a professor at the department of political science at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul and a writer, says he got a personal taste of the importance of financial self-interest at Dogan's media group working as a columnist for one of Dogan’s newspapers, Milliyet News, some years ago. 

At the time, Alpay says Dogan was trying to sell the newspaper to someone whom the writer considered a crooked businessman. Soon after Alpay published a few articles that criticized the move, he was suddenly asked to quit.

“One day they just called me and said that my column will not appear anymore starting tomorrow. As an excuse, they used the financial crisis,” he said.

Alpay now hopes the authorities will prohibit cross-over ownership which he says enables people like Dogan to build empires by controlling broad swaths of the print and broadcast media.

“He [Dogan] poses as if he owns the country. They must break down the concentration of ownership. The government must introduce legislation to stop this from ever happening again,” he said.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Istanbul

Photo: Turkish media boss Aydin Dogan holds the Victoria award in a ceremony at the Publishers Night in Berlin last year. He was awarded for his efforts in German Turkish integration. Credit: Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters