November 9, 2015

Obama supporting press freedoms at G-20 worries Turkey

US President Barack Obama is reportedly expected to deliver strong messages about the importance of press freedom in Turkey during his visit to Antalya to attend the G-20 Summit on Nov. 15-16.

Many media organizations, including Today's Zaman, have not yet been granted accreditation by the Turkish government to cover the G-20 Summit in Antalya, as part of the intolerance of any critical comment against the government.

Turkish news portal Haberdar reported on Sunday that White House sources have said that Obama's bilateral meetings with Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during the G-20 Summit have not yet been confirmed, despite the fact that there is only one week left until the summit. There is a disagreement between Washington and Ankara due to Obama's intention to highlight the importance of press freedom in Turkey, and Ankara is trying hard to prevent any such messages being given on the issue. Haberdar stressed that this disagreement has been ongoing since even before the Nov. 1 Turkish parliamentary election, in which the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) regained its parliamentary majority.

However, for the Obama administration, delivering strong messages about the importance of press freedom before a media crowd that doesn't include any critical media organizations due to the government-imposed accreditation ban is troublesome and ironic. Haberdar reported that Obama administration officials are talking about possible options on how to overcome this problem and include the banned media in the press conference.

The United States has long been disturbed by the pro-government media's attacks on US officials. In a recent example, the US Embassy in Turkey on Friday labeled allegations by pro-government Star newspaper “absurd,” following a report that accused the US ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, of supporting certain groups in Turkey.

The article published in the Star daily on Friday claims that Bass, who visited the Hürriyet daily's offices to show solidarity after the building was attacked by a mob in September, is now “silent and cowering” following the AK Party's victory.

The US Embassy in Ankara posted a series of tweets on Friday denying Star's claims, saying, “Allegations that the US Ambassador sides with any specific group in Turkey are absurd.

“We are apolitical; our only partner is the democratically elected government of Turkey. We will not back down, however, from supporting democracy and media freedom, even if some outlets use this freedom to peddle false and provocative conspiracy theories,” the tweets stated.

The article in the daily criticized Bass for showing support to Hürriyet after the mob attack but for keeping quiet when a bomb was reportedly defused in Star's İstanbul headquarters.

The daily also claimed that Bass is a “defender of media freedoms” when it comes to Aydın Doğan, the owner of the Doğan Media Group -- which controls Hürriyet -- and the “parallel structure,” a derogatory term devised by President Erdoğan and his associates within the AK Party to vilify members of the faith-based Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement, inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.

The embassy finally tweeted a link to a Nov. 2 press conference by Elizabeth Trudeau, the director of the US State Department's Press Office, congratulating the AK Party on its election victory. “It appears some media outlets missed our message of congratulations after the Nov. 1 election," said the embassy in a tweet.

In the meantime, speaking at the daily press conference on Friday, US Department of State Spokesperson John Kirby said: “We continue to be concerned about what appears to be a troubling pattern of targeting media outlets and other organizations that are critical of the government. That's not in keeping with democratic principles, certainly not in keeping with Turkey's own democratic principles.”

Kirby said Turkey is an ally and a partner and contributing to the US-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and hosting a couple of million refugees from Syria as well as dealing with a serious terrorist threat within its own borders and that the US wants Turkey to succeed. “It's in our interest as well as in the interest of the Turkish people, and we want to see Turkey live up to its own democratic principles,” said Kirby.

He added that the reports about press freedom problems “absolutely” troubles the US and that US officials express their concerns both privately and publicly. “… and we will continue because we want to see Turkey succeed,” Kirby said.

Former US envoy: Loss of media freedom threat worse than PKK, ISIL

The former US Ambassador to Turkey Francis J. Ricciardone has called the climate of poor media freedom a “deficiency in the maturation of Turkish democracy,” claiming that the loss of the free press would pose a greater threat for the country than the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) or ISIL.

Ricciardone said in an interview with the New Atlanticist, a blog on the Atlantic Council's website, that he hoped “a new AKP-led [AK Party] government will have gained insight into the vital necessity to any democracy of a truly free and diverse national media.

“If Turkey loses that,” he continued, “the republic and her people will be in far deeper peril than anything posed by the PKK or ISIS [ISIL].”

Calling the media freedom situation in Turkey “a serious perennial problem," Ricciardone, who currently serves as vice president and director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, added: “Despite the very painful recent setbacks to media freedom, I don't see how the establishment of a new AK Party-led government necessarily must exacerbate it.”

“On the contrary,” he continued, “a single-party majority government undeniably will bear the full onus for any failures, just as it will get the positive global and domestic recognition for any successes, whether regarding this issue or any other.”

The outlook for media freedom in Turkey looks bleak as the AK Party took by surprise a snap general election victory with 49.29 percent of the vote, allowing it to field 317 deputies in Parliament and regain the single-party government it enjoyed since 2002, but temporarily lost in the June 7 election.

The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) secured 25.5 percent of the vote while the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) lost a quarter of its voters compared with the June election, managing to rouse only 12 percent of those who voted to mark the ballot paper in its favor.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) won 10.69 percent, just above the 10 percent threshold to enter Parliament.

Ricciardone called President Erdoğan “one of the most skillful and determined, not to say ruthless, political leaders of the Turkish Republic since [Kemal] Atatürk,” adding, “One of those skills evidently is a deep and accurate instinct for his electorate.”

Ricciardone said the “remarkable victory of President Erdoğan's party will give him a strong personal and parliamentary hand in whatever agenda he wishes to pursue.”

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 8 November 2015, Sunday