By Hande Alam
How is Turkey doing these days? It depends on who you ask. The United States has been positioning Turkey as a model for being the most democratic country in the Middle East; on the other hand, the European Union has been questioning freedom of the press and human rights in Turkey, as part of Turkey's the country's EU accession negotiations. Recent events suggest the EU's concerns about press freedom are legitimate. The most dramatic case is the wrangle between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Aydin Dogan, who owns almost half of the media organizations in Turkey.
The prime minister has accused the Dogan Media Group of defaming his AKP Party with reports of alleged corruption. The story involves allegations against a conservative Turkish charity named "Deniz Feneri" (Light House), which collected money from Turkish workers for humanitarian causes in Germany. Donations were allegedly used to fund companies with ties to Prime Minister Erdogan.
Erdogan disputes the reports and has accused the Dogan Media Group of reporting these allegations unfairly due to its bias against his government. He maintains that they published the allegations as punishment for the government's rejection of Dogan's application for a real estate expansion deal in Istanbul.
German Lighthouse was founded as a charity organization in 1999. The money, collected, mostly from Turks in Germany, was channeled to companies in Turkey between 2002 and 2007. At the trial in Germany, the German judge sentenced Turkish directors of the charity Light House to jail for siphoning off 16 million euros ($22.8 million) of donations. The former director of Light House, Mehmet Gurhan, was convicted and sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison. The director of the foundation, Mehmet Tashan, was sentenced to two years and nine months in prison. At the same time, the biggest charity corruption case in Germany's history also highlighted the problem of obtaining information freely and sharing it with the public freely in Turkey.
Aydin Dogan, in an interview with Reuters, said: "The Prime Minister has to recognize us not as a rival or as an enemy but as a normal player in a democracy...He should be proud that we have a free media in Turkey"
Sedat Ergin, the editor-in chief of the daily newspaper Milliyet, wrote: "By giving an ultimatum to the heads of the newspapers, Mr. Prime Minister has openly threatened this principle and tried to suppress the media. Such attitudes targeting freedom of press do not fit to a country proceeding to becoming a European Union member, but rather fit to countries governed by the former Eastern Europe regimes like Belarus."
Such pressure from the prime minister on independent media to report on matters of public interest indicates without question the extent to which freedom of the press in Turkey is threatened. Erdogan's daily accusations regarding Dogan Media have made the public suspicious not only that he was trying to protect the Deniz Feneri, but also that he was trying to scare the media off.
If the Turkish media cannot even have the freedom to report on a case which interests millions of Turkish people, then the AKP party has long way to go before it can even start dreaming of European Union membership.
Hande Atay Alam is a graduate student in the European Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.