How did Turkey become the world's leading jailer of journalists?
President Barack Obama has consistently lavished praise on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, describing the Turkish prime minister as an "outstanding partner and an outstanding friend" and lauding his "great leadership" in promoting democracy in the Middle East. Erdogan has even won plaudits from the U.S. president for his "courageous steps" toward normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations and toward integrating minorities into the democratic process.
But when Erdogan visits Washington on May 16, Obama needs to deliver a different message: Turkey’s failure to address its press freedom crisis is undermining the country’s strategic relationship with the United States and hindering its regional aspirations.
Turkey’s record on press freedom is deeply troubling. With 47 journalists imprisoned for their work, the country is the world’s leading jailer of journalists — ahead of Iran and China. Most of those imprisoned were employed by media outlets that support Kurdish autonomy; others are accused of supporting an ultra-nationalist conspiracy to topple the government. Thousands more journalists are battling punitive lawsuits for reporting on a wide range of sensitive issues, exposing corruption or simply criticizing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan has continuously lashed out at the media, forcing top reporters and editors from their jobs. After columnist and television host Nuray Mert challenged the government’s treatment of the Kurdish minority, for example, Erdogan implied that she was a traitor, prompting her politically sensitive employers to canceled her television show and newspaper column. A similar fate befell Hasan Cemal, a columnist at the daily Milliyet, after his newspaper published details from a secret government meeting with jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Despite regular promises that reform is just over the horizon, Erdogan appears to believe in the necessity of his heavy-handed tactics. When U.S. Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone Jr. expressed concern about Turkey’s press freedom record, for example, Erdogan dismissed the 35-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service as a "rookie." In response to our defense of Turkish journalists, Erdogan has accused Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists of "supporting terrorism."
Obama is right to recognize the strategic importance of Turkey’s relationship with the United States. Turkey is a NATO member and an economic engine for the Middle East. It is also a key partner in addressing the conflict in Syria, as well as the nuclear standoff with Iran. But Turkey’s strategic value also depends on its appeal as a model — a moderate Muslim democracy that has managed to cultivate deep trade ties with Europe — for the newly democratizing states of the Middle East. Turkey’s poor record on press freedom undermines its credibility as a model and blunts its soft power.
It also works against Turkey’s own diplomatic ambitions. Erdogan’s push to join the European Union, for example, has stalled for a variety of reasons, including Europe’s economic downturn, resistance by member states to further EU expansion, and an unfortunate anti-Muslim bent within some European political circles. But a key stumbling block is also Turkey’s record on press freedom, which has been the focus of hearings in the European Parliament and critical reports from the European Commission.
Addressing Turkey’s press freedom deficit is also critical for ending the country’s three decade-long conflict with the PKK, which has waged a brutal campaign for Kurdish autonomy. In order for the current negotiations to succeed, Turkey must make space for the country’s Kurdish minority to express its grievances fully and publicly. While the Kurdish media in Turkey is vibrant, it is also under constant assault — the victim of frequent police raids, prosecutions, and politically motivated arrests. In 2011, for example, authorities arrested nine journalists at the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem for alleged links to the PKK, but furnished no evidence other than the journalists’ own work.
These concerns should be front and center during Obama’s meeting with Erdogan this week. The U.S. president should also express concern about the way Turkey’s terror laws are being used to suppress the media. A majority of the journalists currently in jail in Turkey are being prosecuted under the country’s sweeping anti-terror law, passed in 1991 and updated in 2006 under Erdogan. Most have not been convicted of crimes, but are still being held for extended periods in pre-trial detention.
While Obama and European leaders — including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande — should continue to push for reform, a renewed commitment in Turkey to press freedom, human rights, and democracy will ultimately hinge on Ankara’s appraisal of its own interests.
In fact, Turkey’s move toward democracy in the last two decades has been as much the result of its own civil society’s mobilization as a desire to appease Western critics. Journalists, press freedom advocates, progressive lawyers, and free-thinking academics have taken risks and pushed for reform because they see a bright future for Turkey — one that is built on a commitment to democracy and human rights.
In the coming years, Turkey is bound to play a more active role in the global economy and on the international stage. The strengthening of democracy and respect for human rights should be seen in Ankara as assets, not liabilities. Authoritarian tendencies will only reduce Turkey’s attractiveness and harm its hard-power interests.
Obama must drive this point home in his meeting with the Turkish prime minister. While Erdogan will certainly give his good friend Obama a fair hearing, it is unlikely that he’ll give in to outside pressure. If Turkey’s reforms are to be real and lasting, the country’s leadership must perceive them to be in the national interest.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the daily Milliyet published the minutes from a secret meeting between the Turkish government and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. In fact, the newspaper only published details from the meeting. FP regrets the error.