As Turkey looks to West, trial highlights lagging press freedom

At a cafe in Istanbul, a patron reads Sabah, a pro-government newspaper. Turkish papers have either a secular or Islamist slant.
At a cafe in Istanbul, a patron reads Sabah, a pro-government newspaper. Turkish papers have either a secular or Islamist slant. (Janine Zacharia/the Washington Post)
By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 5, 2010

ISTANBUL -- For a country that is trying to demonstrate its reliability as a partner of the West, Turkey faces an awkward moment next week: An Istanbul judge is set to weigh the legality of enormous tax-related fines imposed on a media firm whose newspapers had sharply criticized the government.

The case, which pits Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan against one of Turkey's wealthiest businessmen, has exposed what some observers say are the prime minister's autocratic tendencies. Critics also point to recent arrests of journalists and Erdogan's allegations that some Turkish columnists are agents of Israel.

The ruling will be closely watched as a bellwether of the direction being taken by Turkey, a young republic that is still wrestling with the fundamentals of democratic governance after centuries of Ottoman rule, even as it pushes for membership in the European Union.

The United States and European countries voiced their disapproval in September when Turkish tax authorities fined Aydin Dogan's media group a record $4 billion in taxes, penalties and accrued interest in connection with a 2006 stock sale to a German company. The amount surpassed the market value of the entire Dogan Holding company.

Dogan's backers see the case -- a complex saga involving disputes over value-added-tax obligations and the way the shares were transferred -- as an attempt by Erdogan to silence a powerful critic. Others, while saying the fine is wildly unreasonable by any measure, have expressed discomfort with Dogan's portrayal as a champion of press freedom.

A billionaire whose conglomerate includes major newspapers and television stations, as well as a leading Turkish fuel distribution company, Dogan for years profited from cozy relations with past governments in a way that hindered the establishment of an impartial Turkish press, some observers say.

Erdogan denies the tax case is politically motivated, but the Dogan group says it followed Turkish law in its conduct of the transaction. "The tax case is not based on wrongdoing," Dogan's 38-year-old daughter, Hanzade, who runs the media division, said in an interview. "We are confident that the court will rule in our favor."

The massive levy has had a chilling effect. "I try to write in a way that won't offend" Erdogan, one columnist working for a Dogan-owned newspaper said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Dogan recently replaced the editor of the company's flagship newspaper, Hurriyet, in an effort to placate Erdogan, people familiar with the move said.

Prime minister targets media

But in a country where YouTube is banned, thousands of Web sites are blocked and journalists are jailed for "insulting Turkishness," it remains tricky for journalists to know what they can write without penalty.

More than 700 cases involving journalists are pending in the courts, according to Sibel Gunes, general secretary of a Turkish journalists association. Roughly 60 journalists are in jail.

Intimidation of journalists is not without precedent here, especially when it comes to limiting reporting on the Kurdistan Workers' Party: Journalists who have quoted members of the separatist group have been convicted of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization.

What is new is Erdogan's challenge to the secular media elite to back down from personal criticism of him. He has publicly urged Dogan to fire columnists and has sued at least five cartoonists, alleging libel and other crimes. In nearly all his recent speeches, he has described the media's role in nationalist terms.

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