ISTANBUL - The sale of one Turkey’s largest media conglomerates to a pro-government businessman is being seen as the ruling AKP party strengthening its control of the media.
The sale came as parliament on Thursday passed legislation widening government control of the internet, one of the last remaining platforms for critical and independent reporting.
Dogan Media Company, owns a chain of prominent newspapers and TV channels. The company was reportedly sold to Demiroren Holding, whose owner, Erdogan Demiroren, has close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Demiroren will probably do to Dogan media what he did when he bought independent newspapers Milliyet and Vatan, and turn it into a government mouthpiece,” analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners predicted. “With this sale, there is nothing left in the mainstream media for a guy or girl out there who is seeking independent information, that period is now over in Turkish media.”
“The process of gathering the Turkish media industry in one hand according to the Putin model is completed,” Kadri Gursel, a leading Turkish journalist, tweeted.
?Bitter struggle ends
The sale of Dogan Media ends a prolonged bitter struggle between owner Aydin Dogan and Erdogan.
For decades, Dogan was Turkey’s most powerful media tycoon. With most of Turkey’s media gradually coming under the direct or indirect control of the ruling AKP party, Dogan media remained one of last sources mainstream independent reporting, observers said.
In 2009, Dogan’s Hurriyet newspaper provoked Erdogan with a report on a German court linking prominent AKP party officials to a charity fraud. Shortly afterward, tax authorities placed a multibillion-dollar fine on the media company, nearly bankrupting it.
A series of court cases have also been launched against the media tycoon and other family members, with prosecutors demanding heavy prison sentences for the alleged crimes.
“The prospect of spending rest of his life in jail is what I think finally forced his decision to sell,” analyst Yesilada said. “It’s symbolic because AKP has this mentality of conquest of its enemies. In the end, Dogan surrendered and this should serve as a lesson as to whatever enemies Erdogan has left, if he has a grudge against you, you should run.”
The government denied such allegations, insisting the judiciary is independent.
There are still a number of critical newspapers and satirical magazines, but Dogan media is the only newspaper distributor outside government control. Observers suggest publications critical of the government could face distribution problems in the future.
In Turkey, the internet is increasingly becoming a platform for independent journalism. Many journalists who’ve been fired for reporting critical of Erdogan have continued working on the growing numbers of web publications.
Some news stations have also begun broadcasting on the internet to maintain independence.
New controls on internet, broadcasting
But Thursday’s action by the Turkish parliament put sweeping new legislation in place to control broadcasting on the internet.
“Now considering Dogan Media is being sold, there is not much of the mainstream media let alone independent media, the only area is left is the internet,” law professor Yaman Akdeniz, an expert on cyber freedom at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said. “People follow not only local produced news media on (the) internet, but also Turkish broadcasts by the BBC, VOA and DW, as news sources. So the government is trying to take action to control these before the elections, which might be early this summer.”
Among the new reforms: the powers of the state regulator for radio and television have been extended to internet broadcasting.
The regulator is controlled by representatives of the ruling AKP party. Under the new legislation, internet broadcasters will have to apply for a license from the regulator.
“Hypothetically, they (the regulators) could declare these programs incite terrorism, so they could close down the programs or revoke their licenses. They could ask (for) the blocking of the website,” professor Akdeniz said.
Observers point out that a growing number of Turkish reporters working overseas are broadcasting internet programs, particularly Germany. The ability of Turkish authorities to impose controls on these is likely limited, observers said.
Recent surveys found more than 70 percent of Turks have access to the internet, and 70 percent of Turkish youth rely solely on the internet for news.
“The underlying truth (is) these media takeovers and current internet censorship will be completely ineffective,” analyst Yesilada said. “The Turkish public intends to remain well-informed, and despite these shocks within a few years, different networks and ways will develop for them to remain informed.”
Turkish authorities have already banned more than 170,000 websites, but observers point out that Turks have become increasingly savvy on the internet, using various means to circumvent restrictions, such as by using virtual private networks (VPN).
But authorities are quickly becoming adept, too.
“Fifteen VPN providers are currently blocked by Turkey,” cyber rights expert Akdeniz said. “It’s becoming really, really difficult for standard internet users to access banned content. It’s not a simple but a complex government machinery now seeking to control the internet.”