An injured journalist is filmed and helped by his colleagues during clashes between riot police and May Day protesters in central Istanbul, May 1, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer)
By: Tulin Daloglu
If US President Barack Obama brings up the controversial issue of freedom of speech tomorrow [May 16], at his meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House, it would be the most surprising news of all. Not only is the US administration facing its own flap over the seizure by the Justice Department last year of phone records at The Associated Press, the world’s most widely disseminated news service, Turkey has long been mired in issues of press freedom even as it espouses such values.
Wiretapping of media personalities and acquiring access to the privileged information of journalists is commonplace in Turkey. While no government is perfect in holding up the highest standards of press freedom, there are still major differences between civil rights and their implementation in Turkey and the United States. Even as the imperfections in the United States make the rest of the world question the sincerity of its democratic principles, Max Hoffman and Michael Werz of the Center for American Progress, question Turkey’s role as a “model” for the rest of the Muslim Arab world in transition to democracy in their new study, “Freedom of the Press and Expression in Turkey,” released on May 14.
“The sidelining of press freedom, minority rights and judicial reform now threatens to impact the joint strategic project being advanced by the United States and Turkey to establish secure and democratic governance in the region and foster economic growth,” they write. “The fact that Turkey has regressed on issues of press freedom and stalled on judicial reforms undermines the persuasive power of the Turkish democratic model in the wider region.” They also admit that Washington almost never makes this issue a priority in bilateral talks. “As such, US officials and policy analysts focused on defining a cooperative regional agenda. Questions surrounding Turkey’s ongoing democratization, including issues of press freedom and freedom of expression, were therefore often sidelined.”
This, however, has always been the case — meaning freedom of the media has never been a priority when state interests are involved. It was not really a major issue in the 1990s, when the military imposed strict media controls covering the fight against Kurdish terrorism. In fact, Erdogan often refers to this kind of military rule and the fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as the two main obstacles to Turkey’s democratization and the freedom of the media. “The 2014 presidential elections may also reveal the extent to which the current controversies are the product of specific leadership personalities or a case of the familiar tools of power wielded by new hands,” Hoffman and Werz write.
Without getting into much detail, though, Hoffman and Werz provide an informative summary of all the challenges that a free press faces in Turkey — from imprisoned journalists to government pressure and media ownership — and propose some suggestions for correcting the system, as well as related laws to help build a freer atmosphere for the media and expression.
While theirs is not the first or the last analysis focusing on the growing concerns about freedom of the press in Turkey, the timing of its release just two days before Erdogan’s visit to the White House shows how Washington think tanks are focusing on this critical issue.
Obama and Erdogan may not even have time to talk about this issue as a good part of their discussion will focus on how to handle the Syrian civil war, and their differences may appear to be substantial. In a snapshot, Turkey is skeptical about giving a chance to the ideas that came out of the US-Russian led Geneva meeting between the Syrian opposition and Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Erdogan’s government — along with Qatar — prefers regime change in Syria. Surprisingly, even the Saudis are showing some restraint and siding with the more secular groups in the Syrian theater. In addition, Turkey wants the United States to impose a no-fly zone over Syria and provide lethal arms to the opposition. It would be a mistake to expect Obama to give Erdogan what he wants, but he still has to please Turkey so that their differences are not visible.
“Given the turmoil in the region,” write Hoffman and Werz, “Turkey cannot afford to come across as undemocratic or as cracking down on freedom of expression. The issue of press freedom is at the core of Turkey’s development as a modern democracy. Vigorous — and often controversial — internal debate is necessary to help reinforce Turkish leadership in the region and the strategic partnership with the United States.” They write: “The United States wants Turkey to be a capable and secure democratic partner with whom it can engage the broader Middle East, and therefore it should more clearly voice its concerns about the deterioration of press freedom and freedom of expression in the domestic political context.”
That said, Turkish authorities claim that the United States has no right to pass judgment on the practice of governmental restrictions on the press. Trying to rationalize the Turkish court’s order that brought heavy censorship and strict blackout to all kinds of visuals, audio and written publications of the terrorist attacks in Reyhanli on May 11, Deputy Prime Minister Huseyin Celik said, “Try to remember the September 11 attacks. There was such a situation in the US as well.”
There was, however, no court order that imposed censorship after 9/11 of the kind Celik refers to. Although it is unlikely that this issue of freedom expression and press freemdom will be addressed at the meeting between the two leaders, it would be best for US authorities to put these misguided comparisons into context and help build awareness in Turkey on these critical issues and prevent the spread of misinformation. The United States may not be the paragon of virtue on freedom of press issues, but Turkey’s press would be freer — and the Erdogan government more respectful of press freedom — if US rules and practices were applied.