March 10, 2015

Members of US Congress withstand intense pressure over press freedom letter

Members of the US Congress who submitted a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last month on the dismal state of media freedom in Turkey are standing firm behind their signatures despite intense pressure from the Turkish government and the pro-government media.

Letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Press Freedom in Turkey
(Click to enlarge)
A number of US Congressmen and their staffers defied mounting pressure from Turkish politicians over the letter, in which they urged Kerry to raise his voice against the worsening media freedom in Turkey, a key US ally. Some members of Congress dismissed criticism over the letter and said they do not regret putting their signature below a letter that highlights how media freedom in Turkey has taken a wrong turn with the government's media crackdown and the jailing of journalists.

Last week the Turkish authorities arrested a prominent critic of the government in Turkey, journalist Mehmet Baransu, who had published a number of exposés in the past that embarrassed both the government and the once-powerful military establishment. Following Baransu's arrest, the State Department said freedom of journalists to operate independently in Turkey is one of the “ongoing concerns” Washington has with respect to Turkey.

Shortly after the letter was signed by 88 members of the US Congress -- the highest number of US politicians ever to make a case about Turkey -- they were targeted by the pro-government media. In one of these instances, Turkish pro-government newspaper Milat described Congressman Aaron Schock on its front page as a member of the “Jewish lobby who supported Israel's massacres” and claimed that he was paid by the Gülen movement (also known as the Hizmet movement) for signing the letter.

“Give Money, Get Signature,” blared the pro-government Sabah daily, which is owned by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's son-in-law. The newspaper claimed that businessmen close to the Gülen movement bribed members of the US Congress and sponsored their travel to Turkey in return for the signatures. Dozens of news reports appeared in government mouthpiece papers shortly after the letter was made public, accusing the US lawmakers of having only a blithe concern for media freedom and signing the letter based on bribes and generous donations.

Days after the letter was revealed, journalists from pro-government newspapers and news agencies both in Washington, D.C., and Turkey flooded congressional staffers with emails and telephone calls, “stalking” them over the letter.

In one leaked email, a correspondent with Daily Sabah, an English-language mouthpiece of the government, sent identical emails to signatories of the letter, demanding that they make a comment as the newspaper found a “link” between them and the Gülen movement as “part of our investigative journalistic approach [sic].” The correspondent also mentioned that Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen made “radical statements” against the Vatican. Back in Turkey, Erdoğan and the pro-government media extensively attacked Gülen for visiting the late pope, John Paul II, in the Vatican and often portrayed the reclusive imam based in Pennsylvania as a pro-Christian and pro-Israeli figure – accusations that find a receptive audience back in Turkey.

Secretary Kerry is yet to respond to the letter while the State Department said most of the press freedom concerns mentioned in the letter had already been publicly voiced. The letter points to a troubling trend in Turkey regarding press freedoms and urges Kerry to speak up against the press freedom violations.

Some 10 journalists remain behind bars in Turkey, including Baransu and STV network executive Hidayet Karaca. The letter also highlights the plight of Karaca and Zaman Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı, who was detained for a week after his newspaper was raided by police in December 2014. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 149th out of 180 countries in its latest press freedom index, while Freedom House listed Turkey in the “Not Free” category in media freedoms.

While the Turkish media campaigned against members of Congress, Turkish politicians publicly and privately scolded the legislators and accused the Gülen movement of “complaining [about] Turkey to outsiders.” In one such scathing criticism, Erdoğan described members of the US Congress as “rental” people who were bribed to rally an anti-Turkey campaign.

“If Mr. Erdoğan believes that US congressmen and their staff, merely by availing themselves of fact-finding trips to Turkey, somehow rent out their views, then the president appears to be projecting onto others his own mindset and practices in relation to Turkey's media. Within his own country, he knows how that works,” Congressman Dana Rohrabacher responded. Other congressmen or their staffers avoided a public spat yet rejected the criticisms. Some of the congressional officials said they are oblivious to media criticisms because they are aware that they are voiced in pro-government papers.

Erdoğan's ridicule of congressmen comes at a time when state-run Turkish groups are intensifying their activities to lobby lawmakers to avoid voting for a bill that would describe the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as genocide. Sentiment among US lawmakers against Turkey runs higher than ever as Erdoğan has ramped up his anti-US rhetoric, observers say. Sources say Turkish lobbyists already spend most of their time and energy on defaming the Gülen movement rather than debating other issues more central to Turkey's national interests that had topped the agenda in similar meetings for years. Erdoğan made it clear that he wants to root out the Gülen movement in Turkey and abroad, launching a full-fledged campaign, either by brandishing sticks or bestowing carrots.
Turkish state-run lobbying groups have renewed their focus on elected US officials in Washington, trying to "convince" them that they “fell in a trap” set by others when they make statements that disturb Ankara.

“We are not so easily influenced in the American Congress,” Rohrabacher highlighted.

Sources say Ankara had initially decided to respond to the letter, but then the Turkish ambassador in Washington was tasked with expressing Turkey's uneasiness over it. Last month Serdar Kılıç, Turkey's ambassador to the US, sent a letter to all the members of Congress who had signed the letter, telling them that Ankara is “deeply concerned” about an attempt “by some” to make the US lawmakers a part of “this ill-willed initiative,” referring to a “misleading portrayal of events” in the letter signed by the congressmen.

“The [ambassador's] letter is an outright insult to the congressmen,” one journalist observed, who has seen the content of the letter.

Congressman Alan Grayson was also troubled by the way Erdoğan and others described the lawmakers. When a leader shows such disrespect for other leaders, Grayson said, he is likely to receive disrespect in return, and the interests of his people suffer for it.

The letter to Kerry was only a small impetus to the government's already increasing lobbying efforts in Washington against the Gülen movement. US officials in Washington, however, keep the dialogue to a minimum. Washington is rife with speculation that Turkish officials are finding it tough to secure appointments with the US administration.

Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and two other ministers went to New York to allay concerns of foreign investors, shaken after Erdoğan continued his frequent bashing of the Central Bank of Turkey to sharply cut its interest rates to boost growth ahead of key elections slated for June 7. Sources said Davutoğlu didn't come to Washington, D.C., because he could not secure a single appointment with US officials.

High-level US officials don't usually meet with foreign dignitaries if they're facing an election in the near future. It was not clear if Davutoğlu bypassed Washington for this reason. US officials usually avoid criticizing their ally publicly on security matters while they're frequently meting out criticisms on media freedoms and civil liberties.

Published on Today's Zaman, 10 March 2015, Tuesday