December 22, 2014

US congressmen write to Obama, criticize media crackdown in Turkey

A number of members of the US Congress have condemned the Turkish government's crackdown on the media by sending letters to US President Barack Obama to express their disapproval of Turkey's shift to an anti-democratic path.

In a letter to Obama dated Dec. 19, US Congressman Juan Vargas (D-CA) said he had been “alarmed by Turkey's unprecedented attack against independent voices in the media through various forms of government pressure.” Vargas also called on the Obama administration to urge Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to enhance and protect all freedoms and the rule of law in accordance with international norms.

Ekrem Dumanlı, editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily, and Hidayet Karaca, chairman of Samanyolu TV, were detained on Dec. 14 in a police operation that targeted journalists, TV scriptwriters and former police officers. A number of international advocacy groups and press organizations in addition to political actors such as the EU and the US have reacted strongly to the detentions, which are fostering the image of a Turkey increasingly drifting toward authoritarianism. Dumanlı was released on Friday, while Karaca has been arrested.

Pointing out that Dumanlı and Karaca had been detained by the police on terrorism and other related charges, Vargas said, “This major setback comes on the heels of a prolonged campaign to intimidate, censor and outright ban key media figures and institutions.”

Vargas stressed that since the corruption scandal of December 2013, which implicated a number of deputies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and their relatives and resulted in the removal of four Cabinet ministers, Erdoğan and his colleagues have “ramped up their criticism and threats against detractors and enacted legislation to curtail the openness of the Internet.” He added that “although some of these actions have been rescinded, the recent events provide a clear example of their lack of respect for these basic rights.”

Disturbed by the anti-democratic turn

“A less democratic Turkey invites radical influences and diminishes Turkey's value as a reliable and stable partner in our fight against violent extremism,” Vargas said. He also noted that Turkey is a longstanding friend and NATO ally of the US and that US officials should speak out “privately or publicly” in support of free and open societies with their Turkish counterparts.

US Congressman David Schweikert (R-AZ) also sent a letter to Obama to warn that “sadly, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey's freedom of the press has drastically been restricted.” Schweikert said that he is troubled by Turkey's anti-democratic trajectory, especially in the wake of recent arrests and detentions of Turkish journalists. “I see this as a major setback, especially as Turkey's freedom of press is already suffering from censorship and government pressure,” Schweikert said.

The congressman noted that Turkey is an ally and an important NATO partner but that “Erdoğan's intolerance to diversity and dissent puts both Turkey and US national interests at risk in many ways.” Schweikert also warned that Turkey has decreased its standing in the region as a successful Muslim-majority democracy and that a less democratic Turkey may give rise to radical influences and diminish Turkey's value as a reliable and stable partner in the fight against violent extremism. “I strongly believe the United States government must urge Ankara at the highest levels, publicly and privately, to enhance all freedoms, democracy, and rule of law,” he added.

Congressman Mike Turner (R-OH), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, made a written statement on Dec. 18 concerning the recent media crackdown in Turkey. “I am troubled by the events that appear to be occurring in Turkey. This most recent raid and the subsequent arrest of journalists across Turkey raise concerns regarding the Turkish government's commitment to independence and freedom of the press,” Turner stated.

Last week, several US senators expressed concern about Turkey's limitations on press freedoms. Six members of the Foreign Relations Committee, including Senator John McCain (R-AZ), heavily criticized Erdoğan over the recent government crackdown on the media. The senators said that Erdoğan's actions are shifting the country increasingly toward authoritarianism and called on the Turkish government to release the journalists who were recently detained.

McCain said on Tuesday that the detention of journalists is "anti-democratic, uncalled for and really unfortunate." He also said that the detentions constitute "repression of the media."

The committee chairman, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), said criticism of the government is not sufficient reason to detain journalists and that detaining media members for being critical is "pretty authoritarian." Menendez also said he is concerned that Turkey is increasingly moving away from secularism.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 21 December 2014, Sunday