As own goals go, the decision by the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to impose a $3.2bn fine on the country’s leading media group for alleged tax evasion takes some beating.
Mr Erdogan’s neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) has always been regarded with suspicion by Turkey’s secular elites, while Ankara’s stalled attempt to join the European Union is regarded with hostility by member states such as Franceand Germany. [ ?]This arbitrary fine is a godsend to the AKP government’s most strident critics, putschist Kemalists at home and EU xenophobes abroad, who can now half plausibly compare Erdogan’s Turkey to Putin’s Russia.
This is a blunder that ranks with earlier government attempts to criminalise adultery, or the state’s attempt to prosecute Orhan Pamuk, the world-renowned novelist, for denouncing the mass murder of Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire. Yet those were recognised as errors of judgment as well as infringements of freedom and were withdrawn. So should this be.
Mr Erdogan’s confrontation with Aydin Dogan, owner of more than half Turkey’s broadcast and print media, looks like a grudge match. The finance ministry, directly responsible for tax affairs, fined the Dogan group $2.5bn for alleged tax dodging last month. With penalties and interest clocking up like a taxi-meter on steroids, this sum has now climbed to $3.2bn, the amount the group must deposit as collateral to appeal the judgment. Dogan has already deposited $500m to contest a separate ruling in February and this new penalty, close to the total value of the holding company, could finish it off.
True, many Turkish conglomerates, lucrative pillars of the secular establishment, have used media outlets to pursue their interests. Dogan is no different. It especially angered the government by appearing to condone attempts to undermine the AKP by the army and the courts. Mr Erdogan says, somewhat archly, that no one should be above the law. But this fine is ruinously disproportionate.
It overshadows the real democratic advances Turkey has made under Mr Erdogan, who should remember he owes his 2007 election landslide to Turks voting for democracy against the generals.
While he should be clear that there is hardly anything more basic to EU rules than freedom of speech, some EU members should reflect that Turkey’s constitutional revolution risks going into reverse the more they succeed in pushing the country into geopolitical limbo.
Financial Times (FT.Com)