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How a Turkish industrial firm expands to Bosnian propaganda

Serdar Vardar | Defne Altiok
December 20, 2023

For decades, Cengiz Holding, a major Turkish construction and mining firm, has won tenders from Erdogan's government. Now it's publishing political propaganda in Bosnia and Herzegovina — DW looks at who benefits.

The front page of the magazine Stav, which belongs to Mehmet Cengiz
The front page of the magazine Stav, which belongs to Mehmet CengizImage: stav.ba

The "gang of five" is the name critics gave the top five companies that have consistently been awarded the biggest infrastructure projects by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government in Turkey. Among them Mehmet Cengiz, the CEO of Cengiz Holding.

From building Turkey's first nuclear power plant to allegations of importing record amounts of sanctioned goods, Cengiz Holding has been involved in a myriad of business operations. Between 2002 and 2020, the company secured $42.1 billion (€38.3 billion) in contracts.

DW Turkish, together with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), also revealed in the Pandora Papers and Panama Papers that Mehmet Cengiz used tax havens to invest some of his wealth.

Bosnian media run by a copper mining company

Cengiz Holding hit the headlines several times over the past decade, primarily because of controversies over public tenders awarded directly to the company but also due to threats to media professionals and the environmental impact of their projects.

Public documents obtained by DW show Cengiz Holding decided to write the headlines itself — and chose to do it in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Eti Bakir is among the dozens of companies managed by the holding company. Eti Bakir, in turn, funded Simurg Media in Bosnia and Herzegovina with approximately €29,000 in 2015. Simurg Media manages two media outlets: Faktor, a daily online news website, and STAV, a weekly political magazine.

Why is a Turkish company investing in Bosnian media?

Borka Rudic, secretary general of the Association of Journalists of Bosnia and Herzegovina, told DW that Simurg Media's publications are aimed at the Bosniak ethnic group, which makes up half of the country's population.

"We are a small market, as a country, and Simurg Media has only focused on one part of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina," Rudic said. "It has no chance to make a profit or to be a sustainable media company."

According to Rudic, the apparent lack of potential profit indicated Cengiz Holding's media investment is "politically motivated."

Turkish journalist and academic Can Ertuna
Turkish journalist and academic Can ErtunaImage: privat

Turkish journalist and academic Can Ertuna said it has become common practice for businesses to enter the media landscape without "the sole purpose of making money from journalism or publishing."

Ertuna said international companies, such as Cengiz Holding, "do not enter the media for profit, but for the survival of their business relations," and added that "when there are no legal obstacles, they aim to create a sphere of influence for themselves."

Cengiz Holding won record tenders in Bosnia

Cengiz Holding has repeatedly won record-breaking contracts in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2012. The total value of two highway projects it undertook in 2012 alone was $383 million. Between 2018 and 2020, the tenders rewarded to the company amounted to over €275 million. In March 2023, Cengiz Holding won another record-breaking tender valued at €420 million.

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK), the trade volume between Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina amounted to €900 million in 2022. In the country with an annual gross domestic product of €24 billion, the total value of the tenders won by Cengiz Holding in the last 11 years exceeds €1 billion. 

Much of the financing for these projects was provided by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank.

According to Ertuna, the conditions for companies doing business abroad cannot be considered completely independent of foreign policy — especially between countries with good relations. "It is obvious that companies that receive some form of public support have an advantage over others," he said.

Engaging in party propaganda

STAV follows "the political agenda of the SDA party (Party for Democratic Action) and reporting favourably on its members, and the Turkish President Erdogan," according to a 2020 report by SEENPM, a network of media centers and institutes in central and south eastern Europe.

The report, published with the support of the European Union, added that "any kind of criticism against the party has been portrayed as attacks against the Bosniaks and the state."

Recep Tayyip Erdogan giving a souvenir to Mehmet Cengiz
Mehmet Cengiz received a souvenir from Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a groundbreaking ceremony for an airport outside IstanbulImage: Emrah Gurel/AP/picture alliance

Given their existing network of relations in Turkey, Ertuna called it unsurprising that companies like Cengiz Holding "invest in media for the benefit of the government that supports their investments abroad and for the survival of their own business relations in that country."

Sociologist Dirim Özkan, who has lived in Sarajevo for years, said the SDA party, founded in 1990 by Bosnian politician Aliya Izetbegovic, comes from an Islamist tradition and is supported by Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. 

'SDA can be considered neo-Ottomanist'

"The SDA is a party that can be considered neo-Ottomanist," Özkan said, emphasizing the ideological aspect of Erdogan's support for the party.

"Serbia is the big brother of Bosnian Serbs. Croatia is the big brother of Croats. Bosniaks and Muslims have no one to lean on. Turkey is positioned as their protective brother," he said.

The Turkish move to support Bosnia's SDA, according to Özkan, comes despite low levels of international trade between the countries.

European statistical agency Eurostat data showed that 5.9% of Bosnia and Herzegovina's imports in 2022 came from Turkey, and 1.7% of the country's total exports went to Turkey.

"Even if the discourse maintains a resolute tone, it holds symbolic significance for conservative voters in both nations, " Özkan said.

Izetbegovic and Erdogan's friendship

The SDA is currently led by the founder Aliya Izetbegovic's son Bakir Izetbegovic, who served two terms as the Bosniak member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency between 2010 and 2018. Erdogan, whom Izetbegovic called "my brother and friend," was the official witness at Izetbegovic's daughter's wedding in 2021 — making the political closeness between the two leaders clear.

"The fact that Izetbegovic and President Erdogan had emotional moments on TV, their brotherhood is affecting Muslim voters in Bosnia," Özkan said.

Erdogan and Izetbegovic at a table in Sarajevo in July 2019
Erdogan and Izetbegovic in Sarajevo in July 2019Image: Presidential Press Service/AP/picture alliance

After losing a presidential election in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Fahrudin Radoncic, a media magnate and one of Bakir Izetbegovic's most important political rivals, commented, "I fought not only against Izetbegovic but also against Recep Tayyip Erdogan in this election."

Selma Zulic Siljak, a project coordinator and researcher at the Mediacentar Sarajevo, said the friendship between Izetbegovic and Erdogan is often portrayed in the media, especially during elections.

"We observe that hate-oriented discourse increases especially during election periods," said Siljak, adding that her organization "red flagged" the daily online news website, Faktor, for "publishing disinformation."

Selma Zulić Šiljak
Selma Zulić ŠiljakImage: Jasmin Brutus/Mediacentar Sarajevo

Both STAV and Faktor were among the media listed for providing biased reporting by a Mediacentar Sarajevo report titled "Harmful discourse during the elections" that analyzed media reporting during Bosnia and Herzegovina's 2022 general election.

The two organizations mainly targeted opposition parties and former SDA members, the report added. 

Experts assert that advertisements are not enough to sustain STAV's large editorial staff and question the source of the rest of the organization's funding. 

Journalist and academic Ertuna called it ethically problematic for media organizations toserve the public interest by keeping tabs on all branches of government when they are funded by conglomerates that receive public tenders. 

"In fact, for media companies to have business relations with the institutions that they are supposed to examine on behalf of society raises serious questions about the extent to which such a task can be fulfilled," Ertuna said.

Mehmet Cengiz and Utku Gök, Cengiz Holding's Bosnia and Herzegovina manager, did not respond to DW's request for comment.

Edited by: S. Sinico