March 25, 2015

US gov’t says shares concerns over Turkey’s poor press freedom record

The United States administration has said it shares the concerns of US lawmakers over Turkey's worsening press freedom record and encouraged Ankara to further its democratic ideals in its response to a controversial letter that sparked a storm in Turkish politics.

“We share your concerns over actions that weaken the diversity and independence of media outlets, and we have conveyed these concerns through private meetings with Turkish officials, public statements, and our annual human rights report,” Julia Frifield, assistant secretary for legislative affairs, wrote to the House of Representatives on Secretary of State John Kerry's behalf.

Letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Press Freedom in Turkey
(Click to enlarge)
The letter, signed by 90 members of the House of Representatives, urged Kerry to speak out more vociferously against Turkey's dismal state of media freedom, which has seen a significant drop in the latest press freedom rankings. A local press advocacy group said on Monday that at least 60 Turkish journalists are facing prison sentences over their reporting since a corruption scandal in December 2013 that targeted the ruling party.

Earlier this month journalist Mehmet Baransu, a fierce critic of the government, was arrested on charges of exposing state secrets. In the past he had published a series of exposés that embarrassed both the government and once-powerful military establishment.

The letter signed by members of the House on Feb. 2 also mentioned STV network executive Hidayet Karaca, who has been held in prison for more than 100 days. Karaca, who is accused of sending encrypted signals to plot against a group linked to al-Qaeda through a soap opera episode, has yet to be formally indicted. Along with Karaca, the Zaman daily Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı, whose newspaper has been at the forefront of covering the corruption scandal that targeted then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's inner circle, was also detained on Dec. 14, 2014 and kept behind bars for a week. He has been released but is currently banned from traveling abroad.

The letter of response from the US administration recalled that the US State Department spokesperson issued a statement on Dec. 14 regarding the arrests the congressmen highlighted. Frifield said the State Department underscored “the importance of media freedom, due process, and judicial independence as key elements in every healthy democracy,” urging Turkish authorities to ensure that their actions do not violate these core values.

Shortly after the letter from the members of the House was unveiled, Turkish pro-government media launched a ruthless smear campaign to downplay the letter's importance. “Give Money, Get Signature,” said the headline on the front page of the Sabah daily, which is owned by Erdoğan's son-in-law, claiming that the US lawmakers were bribed for the signatures. Another newspaper published photos of several lawmakers, calling them members of the “Jewish lobby.”

Erdoğan personally railed against the letter, describing those who signed it as “rental” people. Several US Congressmen who signed the letter characterized Erdoğan's remarks as “disrespectful.” Having seen the negative repercussions of undiplomatic outbursts, Turkish politicians were relatively silent when 74 Senators sent a similar letter to Kerry about Turkey's press freedoms on March 18. The letter underscored prevailing concerns among US lawmakers, including old friends of Turkey, as the Turkish government accelerated efforts to restrict civil liberties and media freedom. The State Department said it would respond to the letter from the Senate as well.

It is almost daily that Turkish journalists are slapped with criminal charges over what they write, including on Twitter. Turkey's courts dole out sentences for any type of criticism under the country's widely exploited defamation law. On Tuesday, a Turkish court ruled to censor critical tweets posted by this newspaper's top two editors. A day earlier another Turkish journalist was sentenced to six months in prison over a Facebook post. Turkish authorities are using courts to effectively silence anyone who speaks up against the government's wrongdoings. Last year, the authorities shut down Twitter and YouTube until the Constitutional Court lifted the ban.

The response from Frifield indicated that the US administration also spoke out when Turkey restricted access to social media platforms. “We later welcomed Turkish Constitutional Court rulings in favor of restoring access to Twitter, which the Turkish government has respected,” the letter stressed.

Erdoğan publicly criticized the Constitutional Court's decision to lift the Twitter ban, saying: “We have to comply with the decision of the Constitutional Court, but we don't have to respect it. And I don't respect [the decision].”

The current president doesn't make it a secret that he wants the new Parliament to grant him extra powers in his sumptuous new palace. Last week, a senior government official asked the president to respect the government's role as an executive body -- an unusual and bold move that sparked a nasty war of words within the ruling party.

Frifield said the US and Turkey share “many strategic and economic interests,” as well as democratic commitments as partners and that Washington continues to encourage Turkey to take the necessary steps to further its own state democratic ideals.

Published on Today's Zaman, 25 March 2015, Wednesday