March 11, 2016

Turkey's tyrant: He steamrolls the media, because he can

Chicago Tribune Editorial Board

The president of Turkey is getting his Putin on.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks less like the custodian of democracy for a crucial American ally hoping to join Europe and more like a nasty, crafty autocrat. More like … Vladimir Putin.

Who needs this guy? Well, the West does. And Erdogan knows it. Turkey, a NATO member, is key to the fight against Islamic State, and to managing the Syrian refugee crisis. But that doesn't mean the United States and European Union should shrug off his troubling predilection for lashing out at perceived foes.

Last week the Turkish government steamrolled the country's biggest newspaper, Zaman, silencing an Erdogan critic and violating the country's tenuous commitment to press freedom. Trustees were appointed to run Zaman, the editor-in-chief was fired, and riot police made a show of force inside and outside the newspaper's offices. When it was over, Zaman's formerly lively front page reported that Erdogan had visited a bridge under construction, but made no mention of the newsroom coup. Yes, from government critic to government mouthpiece, overnight.

Like Russia's authoritarian president, Erdogan is a dominating figure, elected but intolerant of dissent. He led Turkey as prime minister; although the presidency is a supposedly ceremonial post, he reigns as the country's strongman.

In the past two years, Turkey's justice ministry has opened as many as 1,845 criminal cases against citizens accused of insulting the president. In one case, a doctor lost his job for comparing Erdogan to the creature Gollum in "Lord of the Rings." Teens have been charged for ripping down Erdogan posters, or posting unwelcome Facebook comments. Journalists are particular targets: Two from another opposition publication, Cumhuriyet, face serious charges for reporting on alleged arms smuggling to Syria.

In reaction to Zaman's seizure, editors of the English-language version of the newspaper said in a statement: "We are going through the darkest and gloomiest days in terms of freedom of the press, which is a major benchmark for democracy and the rule of law. Intellectuals, businesspeople, celebrities, civil society organizations, media organizations and journalists are being silenced via threats and blackmail. We have entered the last phase in terms of pressure on those who persistently remain independent in their publications."

Turkey is a partner with the U.S. in the war on terrorism, but Erdogan has his own agenda. His main concern, besides burnishing his own image, is putting down a homegrown insurrection against Kurdish rebels. That has made Erdogan a reluctant ally in Syria because the most capable U.S. allies on the ground there are Syrian Kurds. It's tough to count on the Turks, in other words, when they view our friends as their enemies.

Erdogan's other obsession is attacking rivals affiliated with Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania. Gulen is a former Erdogan ally accused of forming a "parallel state." The government's seizure of Zaman appears related to the Gulen crackdown because Gulen has links to Zaman.

Here's what's giving Erdogan the confidence to play his games: The U.S. needs access to Incirlik Air Base, the American outpost in southern Turkey, to fly sorties against Islamic State. And the Europeans need Turkey because it's housing several million refugees, many from Syria.

The Europeans are desperate to halt the arrival of more refugees on the continent. The EU is trying to negotiate a deal in which Turkey would take back migrants who enter Europe from its territory. In exchange, Turkey seeks an aid increase of euros by the billions — and it wants to speed up the process of joining the EU. An early demand: visa-free travel to Europe by June for Turkish citizens.

This should be where Erdogan's abhorrent behavior becomes a sticking point. There's no way Turkey should get a pass on its dismal human rights record because it temporarily holds the cards. If Turkey wants to be considered for membership in the EU, an elite club of democracies, it has to uphold democratic values. A good first step would be the liberation of Zaman.

Published on Chicago Tribune, 10 March 2016, Thursday