The Sabah, Zaman and Star newspapers announced yesterday that they were freezing their membership in the international body, accusing WAN-IFRA of being one-sided in a report on freedom of the press and consulting only with members of Turkey’s Doğan Media Group when drafting the report. These three newspapers also say their objections to the part of the WAN-IFRA report on press freedom in Turkey were ignored by the report writers.
The report, titled “Press Freedom World Review - June-December 2009,” harshly criticized the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), accusing the party of working to undermine freedom of the press in Turkey. “In Turkey, the government continued its campaign against the influential Doğan Group, which owns, among other media, the top-selling daily Hürriyet newspaper and CNN Turkey, with a massive new tax fine of 1.7 billion euros in September for allegedly evading taxes, charges which experts say are groundless. In February, the group had already been fined 345 million euros on similar grounds. Tensions with the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reached a new level in 2008, when the Doğan media began to cover a German criminal investigation into a Turkish Islamic charity linked to the government,” read the report.
On Tuesday, heads of the Sabah, Zaman and Star groups released a statement at the World Newspaper Congress in Hyderabad, India, criticizing the report for being biased. The three newspapers expressed profound disappointment in the WAN-IFRA statement concerning Turkey.
“We had expected a more objective and unbiased position by such internationally acclaimed platforms as WAN and the [World Editors’ Forum] WEF. We find it misleading on the part of WAN and the WEF not to consult Turkish members of WAN, apart from the Doğan Group, while preparing an overview of the status of media freedom in Turkey. It is worrisome that the committee reviewing the status of Turkish media is evidently unaware of what is actually a threat to the freedom of the media in Turkey,” read the statement, signed by Bülent Keneş on behalf of the Zaman Media Group, Suna Vidinli for the Sabah Group and Ergun Babahan on behalf of the Star Group.
In early September, the Doğan Media Group -- Turkey’s largest media company -- was slapped with a fine of TL 4.8 billion, the highest ever imposed on a Turkish company, for tax evasion during a time period covering 2005, 2006 and 2007. Inspectors said the fine was imposed due to their findings that Doğan companies had concealed profits from share transfers among partner companies and had avoided paying corporate tax and value-added tax (KDV) on the revenue from the transfers. Since then, Doğan newspapers have claimed that the fine was “political,” resulting from the holding’s critical approach to the AK Party government. The government, however, denies the claims, saying it is not a party to the tax fine controversy.
The statement also expressed the signatory journalists’ expectation that WAN-IFRA will conduct more thorough research and consult all parties before issuing a statement. “Equating a tax evasion case [which is under judicial review -- with the accused party seeking settlement] with media freedom is an oversimplification of the matter. We hereby request our statement of dissent to be published at the end of the WAN statement concerning Turkey,” added the statement.
The WAN-IFRA report made its way into Doğan newspapers on Tuesday. The Hürriyet daily alleged that Turkey had been placed on a “warning list” along with China, Russia, Cuba, Pakistan and Yemen. The daily also reported that the tax fine against Doğan Yayın was politically motivated and was aimed at “silencing” Doğan. None of those statements, however, were included in the WAN-IFRA report.