ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s Dogan Holding has started talks to sell its $890 million media arm to an unlisted firm seen as close to Tayyip Erdogan, a deal likely to cement media support for the president ahead of 2019 elections.
Long viewed as a pillar of the secular establishment, Dogan Media owns the top-selling Hurriyet daily, broadcaster CNN Turk, TV channels and radio stations. Its acquisition by Demiroren Holding, which owns two pro-government dailies, will put the media overwhelmingly in Erdogan’s corner.
Hurriyet has a circulation of 300,000 and is one of the few major Turkish newspapers that is not seen as pro-Erdogan. Most opposition papers are leftist publications that lack a mass-market readership.
“This sale means the death of pluralism and independent journalism in Turkey’s mainstream media,” said Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for media freedom advocacy group Reporters without Borders.
“The government now has complete control of the media in the run-up to general elections in 2019. Amid an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and the political opposition, only a handful of low-circulation newspapers still offer an alternative to the government’s propaganda,” he said.
An official from Demiroren told Reuters on Wednesday it would buy Dogan’s media arm. Dogan Holding confirmed the talks on Thursday. Shares in Dogan and Hurriyet both surged by the daily limit of 19.5 percent on Thursday after rising a similar amount a day earlier.
Dogan Holding and its octogenarian founder, Aydin Dogan, have been accused by Erdogan of bias against his Islamist-rooted AK Party. Both deny that.
Dogan Media was fined $2.5 billion for unpaid taxes in 2009, in what government opponents saw as an attempt to crush media criticism of Erdogan. Following the tax bill, Aydin Dogan was forced to sell the group’s Milliyet and Vatan newspapers - to Demiroren. Both papers have become staunchly pro-government.
Last year, Aydin Dogan was summoned to court to face fuel-smuggling accusations, a day after Erdogan criticized a Hurriyet story suggesting discord between the government and the army.
He has denied any wrongdoing.
“Dogan’s fuel-smuggling case has not been concluded yet. It’s hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles,” said one person close to both the talks and the AK Party. “I don’t know if this sale will impact the case but that could be a reason for the sale.”
However, in a statement on Hurriyet’s website, Aydin Dogan said the decision to sell the company was his alone.
“I am more than 80 years old now. At this stage I decided to put an end to my publishing profession by my own will,” he said.
On social media some Turks expressed anger at what they said was Erdogan’s tightening control over the media. Others said Dogan news outlets had lost their opposition stance in recent years.
“In the past, media moguls would change the ruling party. Now the ruling party is changing media moguls,” said one Twitter user, Mehmet.
The Cumhuriyet newspaper, another opposition daily, was unequivocal, headlining its story on the deal: “One man, one voice”.
Furthering concerns about media freedom, Turkey’s parliament approved a bill overnight granting the radio and television watchdog the authority to regulate online content.
“The Turkish mass media industry comes under the direct political control of President Erdogan,” Kadri Gursel, a columnist with the opposition Cumhuriyet daily, said on Twitter.
Rights groups and some of Turkey’s Western allies have criticized the country’s record on media freedom and human rights following a crackdown after a failed coup in July 2016.
The United Nations on Wednesday called on Ankara to end its 20-month-old state of emergency, imposed after the failed coup, and accused it of mass arrests, arbitrary sacking and other abuses.
Turkey has said the U.N. report was full of unfounded allegations and compared the criticism to terrorist propaganda.
The Turkish Journalists Association says that as of January, there were 154 journalists in jail. The crackdown has seen dozens of independent media outlets shut down for what the government says are links to terrorism.
Last month, a court sentenced six journalists to life in jail for aiding plotters of the attempted coup, charges the journalists denied.
Dogan Media has an operating value of $1.1 billion and an equity value of $890 million after debt, Dogan said in a statement to the Istanbul stock exchange.
Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun, Ercan Gurses in Ankara and Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Mark Potter and Robin Pomeroy