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The head of Turkey’s largest independent media group, which has remained critical of the country’s controversial president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has confirmed the sale of its newspaper, news agency and its locally licensed TV channel CNN Turk to a pro-government business conglomerate for a reported $890 million.
Critics immediately said that Dogan holding head Aydin Dogan’s decision to sell his media assets after nearly 40 years in the business to Demiroren Holding marked another blow to free speech in the country.
The 81-year-old business magnate Dogan said in an open letter published in the company’s flagship newspaper Hurriyet that he had “willingly decided to end my publishing career.” He added: “We were the first in Turkish media history to establish partnerships with foreign media organizations, bringing key foreign capital and technology to our country and pioneering many innovative developments.”
Highlighted Dogan: “As a publisher, I have always attached great importance to the universal principles of journalism and objective reporting.”
Dogan, long seen as part of Turkey’s secular establishment, has struggled to maintain editorial independence as the country has shifted toward authoritarianism under Erdogan, particularly following a failed military coup in July 2016.
CNN Turk temporarily stopped live broadcasting during the coup after its offices at Istanbul’s Dogan Media Center were entered by armed troops. Erdogan has repeatedly accused Dogan’s media outlets of bias against his Islamist-leaning ruling AK party, which the publisher has strenuously denied.
Nine years ago, after being fined $2.5 billion for unpaid taxes, Dogan’s company was forced to sell two of its newspapers, Milliyet and Vatan to Demiroren. Both have since adopted strong pro-government editorial positions.
The sale to Demiroren, an unlisted firm widely viewed as an Erdogan supporter, means that 21 of Turkey’s 29 daily newspapers will now be under the control of companies that back the president.
The sale, which includes Dogan’s holding in CNN Turk, may raise questions for the international news channel. CNN Turk is part of the portfolio of CNN’s Atlanta-based executive vp and managing director CNN International Tony Maddox. Before joining CNN, Maddox was head of news and current affairs for the BBC in Northern Ireland and began his career as a reporter and producer for the British public broadcaster.
CNN Turk, which broadcasts in Turkish, is wholly independent and Time Warner has no stake in it, but uses the CNN brand and content under license and is part of CNN’s network of international affiliates.
A spokesman for Time Warner told The Hollywood Reporter: “We will be meeting with the new owners in due course to discuss the implications of the sale.”
Erdogan’s crackdown on the media since 2016, which has seen hundreds of journalists arrested and dozens jailed, has been criticized by rights groups and some of Turkey’s Western allies, alarmed that the country has become the world’s biggest jailer of journalists.
Some commentators suggested that Dogan was forced into the sale. Aysenur Arslan, a journalist with Turkish TV channel Tele1, says that Dogan was faced with a choice between going to prison or selling his publishing group.
“He had to do it,” Arslan said, according to a report by the Stockholm Center for Freedom quoting Germany-based Turkish publication Ozguruz. “It had gotten to the point where if he didn’t go, if he didn’t sell, if he didn’t withdraw from the media, his going to prison…was on the cards.”
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