Hefty tax fine raises fears over media freedom in Turkey

24th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

The Dogan group is up in arms over a fine for tax fraud handed down by the country's tax authorities last week that runs to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ankara -- Turkey's opposition has backed the country's leading media group in protests over a massive tax fine, which they suggest is a bid by the government to muzzle the country's press.

The Dogan group is up in arms over a fine for tax fraud handed down by the country's tax authorities last week that runs to a breathtaking 826 Turkish pounds (332 million euros, 426 million dollars).

The fine came after repeated tax audits on the group, and could yet be followed by criminal charges.

Turkey's tax authorities said the Dogan group delayed payment of tax on a transfer of capital to Germany publishers Axel Springer.

Dogan, whose media holdings include the daily newspapers Hurriyet and Milliyet and the television channel CNN-Turk, has denied the accusation, saying it paid on time.

A statement from the group, which is owned by chairman Aydin Dogan, said it had serious reasons to believe that the tax controls had been politically motivated -- and the parliamentary opposition shares that view.

Deniz Baykal, the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), has accused Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of wanting "to silence the press and journalists" before the March 29 local elections.

"He imposes fines when the news does not suit him," said Baykal.

This is not the first time the media giant has clashed with Erdogan's government.

Last September, Erdogan reacted sharply when Dogan newspapers reported on a German court's conviction of three men for siphoning off millions of euros from Deniz Feneri (The Lighthouse) charity to non-charitable causes.

He did not appreciate speculation that the money went at least indirectly to Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which if established would have provoked a fresh bid to ban the party.

The Dogan group's media outlets have been among those who have been critical of the AKP, fearing that the Islamist-rooted government is trying to undermine the secular basis of Turkish society.

Erdogan's government is also under pressure from the European Union as part of its continuing efforts to join the bloc. For while Turkey has already introduced a number of reforms, Brussels wants to see more done to guarantee freedom of the press.

Erdogan needs success in those polls to consolidate his victories in the 2007 legislative election.

Turkey's press associations also see the tax offensive against the Dogan group as further evidence of the AKP's determination to punish those media outlets that resist its vision of the world.

Certainly Erdogan is not afraid of controversy and has often been criticised in the past for his belligerent approach to opponents and the media, both at home and abroad.

So far as the papers hostile to his party's policies are concerned, he has made his feelings clear, calling for voters to boycott them.

He insists, too, that the tax fine against the Dogan group was perfectly legal and had nothing to do with him.

But he also told supporters over the weekend at a rally in the southeastern city of Adiyaman: "Liberty of the press cannot be used to defame."

Erdogan himself has launched several suits for defamation against journalists and caricaturists who have offended him.

Burak Akinci/AFP/Expatica

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