Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Press Freedom

RIGHTS-TURKEY: Freedom of Expression Under Attack

Hilmi Toros

ISTANBUL, Mar 5 2009 (IPS) - As it aspires for full European Union membership, Turkey is still struggling with freedom of expression, raising questions whether it can ever join the EU or will simply remain a suspended bridge between East and West.

In a severe test of press freedom, the country’s largest media group often critical of the government has been slapped a record 500 million dollar fine for alleged tax evasion and fraud. Critics say this is a politically motivated move to silence dissent with the Islamic-rooted governing party.

At the same time, the head of the pro-Kurdish party is ostracised, ahead of possible persecution, for breaking a taboo, if not the law, by speaking Kurdish in Parliament.

The media-government battle pits Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist firebrand, now as popular as controversial, against Aydin Dogan, an avowed secularist and head of a business complex with about half of the national media in its fold.

The running duel between the two began last September when the Dogan group extensively covered the trial of a charitable Turkish foundation charged in Germany with siphoning funds to members of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party AKP. The Prime Minister accused Dogan of seeking revenge for failure to gain preferential treatment for his business dealings – and asked the public to boycott his news outlets.

The fine, slapped for alleged late registry of the sale of shares of the Dogan publishing group to German publisher Alex Springer AG in 2006, is unprecedented in the annals of national taxation. Erdogan calls it a “legal” issue, Dogan says it is “political”.

Independent analysts and international media groups are challenging the motives behind the fine. The Cumhuriyet, the oldest daily in Turkey founded by the Turkish Republic’s first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, left its front page blank last week in protest against what it called pressure on the media.

“This is a fine against freedom of the press and democracy,” senior Dogan executive Vuslat Dogan Sabanci said in a statement. Accreditation of six Dogan group journalists to the Prime Minister’s office has been revoked.

“The timing and unprecedented size of this tax fine raise serious concerns that the authorities are changing their approach from rhetoric to using the state apparatus to harass the media,” International Press Institute (IPI) director David Dadge said in a statement Feb. 20. The IPI is a Vienna-based group comprising editors and media executives defending press freedom.

“Even if the case has merit, which is contestable, such a fine is unlikely to have been imposed on a media group not critical of the ruling party,” Istanbul attorney Koray Argun told IPS.

Last November, the EU’s progress report on Turkey noted improvements but asked for reforms to strengthen democracy and human rights. The country was considered short on implementing legislation that would qualify it for EU membership.

The current media crisis may yet come to a head. “When and how it will be settled is unknown, but there is the possibility that, if not settled, the Dogan group risks its assets being impounded,” attorney Argun says.

The freedom of speech issue moved from media to parliament when Ahmet Turk, leader of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), spoke in Turkish to party deputies in Parliament on the global day for mother tongues Feb. 24, as is obligatory in the legislative chamber, but then broke off into Kurdish. The state TV network cut off the live broadcast.

Turk defended himself by noting that, in a bow to EU pressure, the state-run national radio and television network TRT has launched a 24-hour Kurdish programme, and that the Prime Minister himself, in a hotly contested campaign in nationwide local elections, spoke words in Kurdish in Kurdish populated areas.

“It may be beyond logic that while the Prime Minister can say Kurdish words and the state TV has a Kurdish channel, a Kurdish party leader cannot speak his language,” analyst Sanem Yunusoglu told IPS. “But the law permits only Turkish in Parliament.”

Kurdish language was banned in public until 1991 for fear that it may become a springboard to demands for separate nationhood by Turkey’s Kurds. The prohibition is being eased, party under EU pressure, except in Parliament.

Yunusoglu says that both the Kurdish leader and the Prime Minister are fishing for votes ahead of nationwide local elections Mar. 29, with voters of Kurdish origin accounting for a fifth of the electorate.

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