"We write to express our deep concern about the persistence of human rights violations in Turkey," 74 US senators from both sides of the aisle wrote in the letter, the largest number of US senators to have ever signed a letter concerning Turkey. The letter came only weeks after 90 members of the House of Representatives also asked Kerry to raise his voice more loudly to support Turkey's media freedom. The letter from Congress unleashed a massive wave of criticism from Turkish politicians and the pro-government media, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan describing the members of the US Congress as "rental" people. The pro-government media claimed that the US lawmakers who signed the letter had been bribed. Some of the congressmen who signed the letter publicly rejected those claims and Erdoğan's "disrespectful" remarks.
The letter from the Senate is expected to cause a similar storm in Turkey as it heads into an electoral season when Turkish leaders usually ramp up anti-US rhetoric. The letter said the US senators are particularly concerned by the recent arrest and detention of members of the Turkish media and the broad effort by the Erdoğan government "to censor the freedom of press."
The lawmakers said a strong democracy requires that all members of society respect the freedom of expression, even when voices opposed to the government are vocal. "We hope that you will address this issue as you engage with the Turkish government," the letter urged Kerry.
Since a government corruption scandal erupted in December 2013, Turkish authorities have intensified a crackdown on the press. Perhaps as many as 10 Turkish journalists currently remain behind bars, including STV network executive Hidayet Karaca. Earlier this month, the authorities arrested a prominent critic of the government, journalist Mehmet Baransu, whose publications in the past based on secret exposés that embarrassed both the government and the once-powerful military establishment. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Turkey in 149th place out of 180 countries in its latest press freedom index while Freedom House described Turkey as "Not Free" when it comes to upholding press freedoms. Earlier this month, the US State Department said the freedom of journalists to operate in Turkey is one of the "ongoing concerns" Washington has with respect to Turkey.
The letter drafted by the senators cited a report from the world's leading rights advocate, Human Rights Watch, saying that Erdoğan's administration has begun a "crackdown" on critical voices in the Turkish media. They said the brief arrest of the Zaman daily's editor-in-chief, Ekrem Dumanlı in December 2014 and the arrest of Karaca, also CEO of Samanyolu Media Group, have attracted international attention to the Erdoğan government.
These members of the media, the letter added, were arrested and detained on "questionable charges."
"Unfortunately," the letter noted, the arrests of Dumanlı and Karaca reflect a "broader pattern of abuse." The senators reminded Kerry of the corruption allegations that were leveled against ex-ministers, pro-government businessmen and even the son of Erdoğan, more than a year ago.
Erdoğan described the corruption investigation of his inner circle as a conspiracy "with global links" seeking to topple his elected government. In the course of the past year, all of the suspects in the corruption probe were released, the charges against them were all dropped, the prosecutors overseeing the investigation were either removed or appointed to less influential provinces and the police officers who carried out the operations were arrested on charges of an orchestrated attempt to bring down the government. To the dismay of critics, the ministers accused in the probe were all cleared in Parliament.
The senators said in the letter that many prominent journalists have lost their jobs for writing material that was critical of the Erdoğan's government since the corruption scandal. "These tactics are unacceptable in a democracy; a free press is central to full access to information for citizens. The attempt by the Turkish government to punish and censor the Turkish media is a matter of deep concern for the United States," the letter said.
A recent Harvard University report has revealed the course of the tightening government grip on independent media outlets in Turkey, claiming that at least 1,000 journalists lost their jobs since 2013 protests linked to Gezi Park near İstanbul's famed Taksim Square.
Erdoğan's unwillingness to join a coalition to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), his anti-Western rhetoric, support of a variety of Islamist entities across the Middle East and a violent crackdown on Gezi protests have significantly damaged his credibility in the West.
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The letter from the Senate comes before Kerry has even responded to the similar letter from the 90 congressmen. The State Department had earlier said that Kerry would provide a response to that letter.
"We strongly urge you to address this issue with President Erdoğan and his administration in a way that encourages a peaceful and appropriate resolution to these cases," the senators said in the letter. "Such a broad effort by the Turkish government to censor media is an affront to the basic principles of democracy, free society, free enterprise, rule of law, and equal opportunity."
Published on Today's Zaman, 18 March 2015, Wednesday
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