Over the last week, the domestic political agenda in Turkey has been dominated by an unprecedented war of words between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Dogan Group, the largest media organization in the country. The confrontation has swept both the repercussions of President Abdullah Gul’s groundbreaking visit to Armenia (see EDM, September 4 and 5) and Turkey’s uneasy relationship with Russia (see EDM, September 9) off the front pages of the country’s newspapers. It has also provided more evidence of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian manner and has served as a reminder of the continuing paucity of impartial news coverage that has not been filtered through, and frequently distorted by, Turkish media owners’ political preferences and perceived business interests.
The confrontation was triggered by a German investigation into allegations of fraud at an organization called Deniz Feneri e.V., which had been established by pious Turks living in Germany to serve as a conduit for donations from the Turkish diaspora in Europe to charitable works in Turkey and other Muslim countries. Although it is a separate legal entity, the German-based Deniz Feneri e. V is effectively an offshoot of the Turkish Deniz Feneri (meaning “Lighthouse” in English), which was established in 1998 following a successful television program of the same name on the Islamist Kanal 7 channel, which frequently distributed food and basic household goods to the poor. Close associates of Erdogan own a majority of Kanal 7, and Deniz Feneri has frequently worked closely with leading members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
According to the indictment submitted by prosecutors to a court in Frankfurt, over a period of several years three executives at Deniz Feneri e.V. transferred in cash by courier a total of 41.3 million euros (approximately $58 million) collected in Europe to Turkey. The indictment includes confessions by one of the accused, Firdevsi Ermis, that only 40 percent of the money collected by Deniz Feneri e.V. was actually used for charitable works. He said that the remainder had been diverted to the other companies, including Kanal 7, and to the private business interests of the accused. During their investigations, prosecutors also found a receipt for the transfer of an unspecified amount to “the prime minister” in Turkey to assist the survivors of the southeast Asian tsunami in 2004. Erdogan was the prime minister at the time. More damagingly, the indictment claimed that there had been “political pressure” from Turkey for the three accused to be released from custody (Indictment presented to the 26th Penal Court in Frankfurt am Main, Document No. 6350 Js 203391/06).
Even though there is nothing in the indictment that directly implicates Erdogan, the extensive allegations of fraud against individuals and organizations known to be very close to the AKP are undoubtedly very damaging; particularly as they follow a string of other allegations of graft involving the AKP (see EDM, April 24). On September 2, for example, Saban Disli, the deputy chair of the AKP, was forced to resign from the party’s National Executive after documents appeared in the press apparently showing that he had received a $1 million bribe in return for using his influence to change the zoning of a plot of land so that it could be developed (Milliyet, Radikal, NTV, CNNTurk, September 3). Although the identity of the person or persons in Turkey who applied the “political pressure” for the release of the accused in the Deniz Feneri e.V. case remains unclear, no one doubts that those responsible would, at the very least, have believed that they were acting in accordance with Erdogan’s wishes.
Extraordinarily, when the non-AKP media began publishing details of the claims in the German indictment on September 5 (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Radikal, Vatan, CNNTurk, NTV, September 5), instead of trying to distance himself from the allegations, Erdogan attacked the Dogan Group, which owns the daily newspapers Milliyet, Hurriyet, Radikal and Vatan and is a part-owner of the CNNTurk television channel, although it has no stake in NTV. Erdogan publicly warned the Dogan Group that unless it stopped publishing reports linking him with the allegations of fraud, he would publicize details of its own illegal activities (CNNTurk, NTV, Haberturk television and website, September 6). He later claimed that the Dogan Group was seeking revenge for his refusal to change the zoning of the parkland around Istanbul’s Hilton Hotel, which was bought by the group in 2006, so that it could be opened for development (Yeni Safak, Zaman, Sabah, September 8).
There is no doubt that some editors at the Dogan Group’s publications have sometimes tailored their news coverage to suit their perceptions of the interests of the group’s other business concerns, although there is no evidence that they have been explicitly instructed to do so by Aydin Dogan, the group’s owner. At least in this instance, however, both the Dogan Group’s outlets and others that it does not own, such as the NTV news channel, were merely repeating allegations made in open court in Germany. Perhaps more alarming than the bullying tone adopted by Erdogan was his apparent failure to understand that if his accusations of the Dogan Group’s illegal activities were true, he was tacitly admitting withholding evidence of a crime. Not surprisingly, the Dogan Group responded by accusing Erdogan of blackmail (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Radikal, Vatan, CNNTurk, September 8). All the while the pro-AKP media unblinkingly concentrated on Erdogan’s accusations against the Dogan Group rather than the allegations in the German indictment. Nor did they mention the state contracts and licenses Erdogan has awarded to pro-AKP media groups, including the Calik Group, the owner of the ATV-Sabah Group (see EDM, April 24), of which Erdogan’s 28 year-old son-in-law is coincidentally the general manager (Zaman, Today’s Zaman, Sabah, ATV, Yeni Safak, September 8-9).
The polemics in the media have also distracted attention from other questions raised by the German indictment. There is no evidence that however dishonest some of its executives may have been, Deniz Feneri e.V. has ever been involved in anything but charitable activities. There are, however, other so-called Islamic charitable organizations in Turkey, some of them with links to the Turkish diaspora in Europe, that have very close ties with violent Islamist groups. If the allegations in the German indictment are true and 41.3 million euros were illegally smuggled into the country without apparently troubling the Turkish authorities, it is difficult to believe that smaller sums destined for organizations with a much more radical agenda are likely to be intercepted.