The sale of the independent Dogan Group to a firm close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sparked anger and dismay among many people in Turkey. Does it spell the end for independent media in the country?
Well-known columnist Kadri Gursel captured the opinion of many journalists in Turkey when he wrote on Twitter that the Dogan Group's sale meant the country's mass media industry is coming "under the direct political control of President Erdogan."
His reaction is understandable. The Dogan Group, which in addition to broadcaster CNN Türk, owns the top-selling Hurriyet daily and its English edition, the Hurriyet Daily News, the Posta newspaper, sports magazine Fanatik and broadcaster Kanal-D, was previously seen as critical of the government. But its buyer, Demiroren Holding, is said to have close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
'Dark day for press freedom'
In an interview with DW, Christian Mihr, executive director of Reporters Without Borders Germany, called the sale a "dark day for press freedom."
"It's a turning point for Turkey's media landscape," he said. "Of course journalists at those outlets were constantly confronted with censorship and also self-censorship that stopped them before they crossed any red lines. Nevertheless, we saw the Dogan Group as an independent commercial media conglomerate."
"The sale represents a deep cut," Mihr added, "above all, because the last remaining independent newspapers, like Cumhuriyet, Evrensel and BirGun have a pathetically low combined circulation of about 45,000 in daily sales — the Dogan Group had far greater reach."
Lack of a 'fourth estate'
But the Hamburg-based Turkey expert Yasar Aydin takes a more measured view. He says he doesn't currently see a protest wave sweeping through wide parts of Turkish society. As he explained in an interview with DW, people in Turkey are used to crossovers in the worlds of media, politics and business.
"How should a media group like Dogan fulfill its function as the fourth estate when it has interests in other industrial sectors, when it is investing — making it dependent on a good relationship with the government? This intertwining of media, politics and business also leads to the media being used as leverage to push your own interests. Turkish media is a long way off from being able to function as a fourth estate," Aydin said.
Conformity leads to self-censorship
Reporters Without Borders' Media Ownership Monitor supports Aydin's views. As part of a three-month project, the organization investigated the legal framework, media convergence and ownership structures of the 46 most-used media sources in Turkey.
"The economic and political conformity in Turkey inevitably leads to self-censorship among many journalists who don't want to lose their jobs," said Evren Gonul, who worked on the project as the coordinator of the Turkish partner organization, Bianet. "If you want to make a living in this career at this point in time, you can't afford to be critical. In most cases, the government doesn't have to do anything to rein in the media — the economic pressure is much more effective."
Reporting likely to toe government line
Demiroren Holding is a good example of the crossover in media, politics and business in Turkey. It's active in the energy and construction sectors, as well as tourism. The Dogan corporation, said to be receiving around €890 million euros ($1.1 billion) for the sale, is also active in the energy and industrial sectors. Such ownership structures are partly behind Reporters Without Borders' decision to rank Turkey 155 out of 180 countries in its worldwide press freedom ranking.
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The sale won't change much in terms of Turkey's ranking, said Mihr. He expects Turkish media to toe the government line to an even greater degree in future. "I'm always open to surprises, but I actually expect reporting will be much like it is at other media outlets with close ties to the Turkish government. That means it will be very uncritical when covering current events in Turkey, as well as being wholly uncritical in reports about the government and its policies," Mihr said.
Focus on social media
Turkey expert Aydin believes that the more uniform reporting will reinforce current trends in Turkey's media consumption. "There's not a lot of trust in the media landscape. A lot of people are disappointed with the news coverage, and sales are going down. Quality journalism is a rare thing in Turkey. That's leading to more and more people getting their news from social media," he said.
But even there, the Turkish government is extending its reach. On Wednesday night, Turkey's parliament passed a law requiring numerous websites to be licensed, allowing authorities to have more control over the internet.