Istanbul: A top Turkish businessman with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to buy Turkey’s largest media holding, a statement said Thursday, raising fears of a new tightening of government control on the press.
Dogan Holding said talks had begun on the sale of Dogan Media Group to the Demiroren Group of magnate Erdogan Demiroren for around $1 billion (810 million euros).
Dogan Media Group comprises some of Turkey’s most prestigious media names including the Hurriyet daily newspaper, the Fanatik sports daily, the CNN-Turk rolling news service and the Kanal-D channel.
The respected CNN-Turk and Hurriyet had been regarded as holding a relatively independent editorial line in recent years, as the space for voices critical of Erdogan shrunk.
However, the Demiroren Holding, which has interests in energy, property and construction, is seen as more friendly to Erdogan.
The takeover plan raised fears among journalists there would be little space left to challenge the president ahead of 2019 elections.
A senior Dogan Media Group journalist expressed alarm over the move, adding it was part of a trend in Turkey to centralise media control.
“It is an indication of a lack of pluralism, zero tolerance to dissent, and a rock bottom for freedom of expression in Turkey,” the staffer, who asked not be named, told AFP.
Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said the government now had “complete control of the media” ahead of the polls.
“Only a handful of low-circulation newspapers still offer an alternative to (its) propaganda,” he said.
– ‘Palace operation’ –
Others questioned how the Demiroren group would be able to raise the funds for such a purchase. “Demiroren does not have this money. But it could be an operation by the (presidential) palace,” economist Mustafa Sonmez wrote on Twitter.
According to the latest rating of the Turkish edition of Forbes magazine, Erdogan Demiroren is Turkey’s 45th richest person with a total fortune of $850 million.
Demiroren already bought the Milliyet and Vatan newspapers in 2011 from Dogan Holding, with the formerly mainstream outlets toeing the government line since then.
His son, Yildirim, also holds a powerful role as head of the Turkish Football Federation and is a regular visitor to the presidential palace.
A tape was leaked to Turkish media in March 2014 allegedly with Erdogan Demiroren tearfully apologising to the president, then prime minister, over an explosive story over the peace process with Kurds.
Dogan Holding founder Aydin Dogan has had an uneasy relationship with Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) since the party came to power in 2002.
The holding, which also has interests in energy, trade and insurance, faced a record $2.5 billion in tax fines in 2009.
Some believe that Erdogan never forgave Dogan over a 1998 headline saying his political career was over following his criminal conviction for reciting an Islamist poem. “He cannot even be a mukhtar (village chief),” the headline said.
Observers have noted that in recent months Hurriyet has taken care not to irritate the government in its news stories, despite having some critical columnists.
– ‘One man, one voice’ –
Press freedom activists in Turkey have long worried that the ownership of media by vast holding companies who make their money in other sectors has encouraged a paralysing self-censorship.
“One man, one voice,” headlined the Cumhuriyet daily. Cumhuriyet, one of few truly opposition newspapers in Turkey, is owned by a media foundation rather than a business.
Dozens of journalists have been jailed after the failed July 2016 coup aimed at unseating Erdogan and blamed by Ankara on US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen.
Meanwhile critical media outlets have been shut down by the authorities like the pro-Kurdish TV channel IMC TV and the daily newspaper Taraf.
In a new move seen by critics as a clampdown on freedom of expression, Turkish lawmakers passed a law giving the communications watchdog the power to block internet broadcasts.
Opposition MP Garo Paylan told AFP it would give the authorities the capacity to block platforms like Netflix and YouTube if content was deemed to be offensive.
“This can make Turkey become a completely closed country,” he said.