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In Turkey, criticism an expensive business

Tax delinquent, or target of a government running scared? Dogan Media Group thinks the latter.

Turkish publisher Aydin Dogan holds the Victoria award during a ceremony at the Publishers Night in Berlin Nov. 17, 2008. Dogan was awarded for his engagement in Germen Turkish integration. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Any normal business would tremble in the face of a $2.5 billion tax fine. But in the case of Dogan Yayin, Turkey’s largest media corporation, most are betting that more is going on than just a simple case of tax delinquency.

The powerful media group owns more than half of the country’s newspapers and two major TV stations, including CNN-Turk. Over the past several years they have emerged as the most vocal critics of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — making it all the more suspicious that the government has levied a tax penalty on the group equal to the value of the entire company.

On Nov. 24, Dogan Yayin will meet with Finance Ministry officials to discuss a possible settlement to the fine, which has raised concerns about freedom of the press in Turkey.

This week, in the face of the fine, Aydin Dogan announced the sale of five of his newspapers — Milliyet, Vatan, Posta, Radikal and Fanati — to Germany's Axel Springer, leaving the group with only the Hurriyet newspaper, alongside its television and other media interests.

The battle between Dogan Yayin and the Turkish authorities reached new heights this September when Dogan was notified that the fine, already record-breaking, had been increased to an astonishing $3.3 billion, leading many to argue that the government is now trying to literally tax the group to death.

As penalties mount, the case has increasingly drawn international criticism at a crucial moment in Turkey’s effort to join the European Union.

The fine comes just months after an initial $500 million tax penalty leveled against Dogan. According to Turkish tax officials, Dogan engaged in deceptive practices and failed to pay tax on income earned through the sale of a company and the transfer of shares between companies within the group itself. Then, in April, Ankara banned Dogan companies from bidding on government contracts.

Dogan Yayin, meanwhile, has accused the government of singling it out and twisting the country’s financial rules to suit its political purposes.

For many observers the whopping penalty looks, and feels, like an assault on the freedom of the press.