Turkish PM locks horns with media

Erdogan says anti-establishment report was reaction to the government's refusal to give permission for building project on prime land

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ISTANBUL // Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, has never had a relaxed relationship with the media in his country. He is accused of being an Islamist bent on destroying the republic's secular order. He once even took a cartoonist to court because the artist had drawn him as a cat.

That court case, which the prime minister eventually lost, was nothing compared to the explosive row that has erupted between Mr Erdogan and Aydin Dogan, the most influential media baron in Turkey and one of the richest men in the country. The dispute is fought with a bitterness that could further deepen the polarisation in Turkish society, observers said. The row started last week when Mr Dogan's media, which include top-selling newspapers Hurriyet and Milliyet, as well as the television channel CNN-Turk, reported that an investigation against a Turkish charity active in Germany had unearthed evidence that pro-government media in Turkey and even Mr Erdogan's government itself may have benefited from an illegal transfer of money collected in Germany.

Mr Erdogan denied the accusations and shot back at Mr Dogan, saying the reports were a reaction by the Dogan Group after Mr Dogan failed to receive permission to build property on a piece of high-value real estate around the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul, which he owns. Currently, no construction is allowed on the piece of land in question. "He proposed [the building project] personally to me and the [Istanbul] municipality," Mr Erdogan said about the alleged wish by Mr Dogan. "And because he did not get what he wanted, this campaign has been going on."

Further fanning the flames in a speech in Istanbul last weekend, Mr Erdogan added, in remarks directed at Mr Dogan: "There is something beneath this, there is something that you have not said anything about. I know what it is, but say it yourself. I will be in Istanbul again in a week from now. If you have not said until then, I will reveal it myself." Mr Dogan denied that he asked favours of the prime minister, while Deniz Baykal, the opposition leader, said the prime minister was trying to blackmail Mr Dogan.

Although his government has passed a number of laws strengthening press freedom in recent years in line with Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union, Mr Erdogan is accused by critics of being extremely thin-skinned when it comes to unfavourable press coverage. In 2005, Mr Erdogan took cartoonist Musa Kart to court because of the cat drawing. One year later, Turkey's top court of appeals rejected the prime minister's complaint, and said Mr Erdogan had to live with that sort of criticism.

Mr Erdogan is seen as the leader of a new middle class of observant Muslims that have begun to challenge the power of Turkey's traditional and strictly secular elites, which dominate the military, the judiciary and parts of the bureaucracy. The past few years have seen the rise of a section of media that reflects the more conservative outlook and lifestyle of this new Anatolian middle class. "The conservatives have strong centrist media now, and they go head to head with the Dogan media," said Fuat Keyman, a political scientist at Koc University in Istanbul. "There is a fight between opposing media. They act on the basis of their own interests. We will continue to see those fights."

The split between the newly strengthened conservative and the traditional media became visible in editorials dealing with the row between Mr Erdogan and Mr Dogan. Ertugrul Ozkok, the editor of Hurriyet, questioned Mr Erdogan's democratic credentials. "He does not like opposition. He does not like to be contradicted," Mr Ozkok wrote. "Our prime minister is not a democrat." Meanwhile, Fehmi Koru, a columnist close to Mr Erdogan, accused the media of the Dogan Group of hypocrisy.

"In the group's newspapers [...] the issue is constantly being referred to as a violation of press freedom," Mr Koru wrote in the pro-government daily Yeni Safak. "But 'press freedom' is understood by the group's newspapers as acting as the 'reporting at the boss's behest'." The row has also revealed some of the darker sides of political life in Turkey, Mr Keyman said. "Part of it is an effort [by Mr Erdogan] to deflect attention from the investigation, because the case in Germany is a serious one," he said. "It also shows how things are handled in Turkey, how much nepotism there is."

Mr Keyman and other observers said the dispute highlighted the lack of an effective political opposition to Mr Erdogan's government. "In normal cases, the opposition would pick this up, and maybe it could lead to early elections or a vote of confidence" against the government in parliament, he said. The pro-government newspaper Sabah cited recent opinion polls that saw Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, at about 50 per cent, while the two main opposition parties were below the 10 per cent threshold that parties need to cross to get into parliament.

"This tension stems from the fact that there is no serious opposition party that could be an alternative to the ruling party," wrote Ergun Babahan, the newspaper's editor. @email:tseibert@thenational.ae