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Concern to What End? U.S. Responses to Turkey's Assault on Press Freedom

The Turkish government’s March 4 takeover of Zaman, one of the country’s leading opposition papers, was widely seen as a dramatic escalation in the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ongoing assault on press freedoms. It follows on the heels of a number of troubling developments over the past year, including the seizure of smaller media outlets and the arrest of a number of journalists. In response, the U.S. government has consistently voiced its concern, not only with regular comments from the State Department spokesman but also words and actions from the U.S. ambassador and Vice President Joe Biden. The list below, summarizing U.S. responses to recent violations of press freedom in Turkey, reveals the consistency in U.S. rhetoric, but also shows that Washington’s reactions may not be keeping pace with increasingly flagrant abuses.

In its 2013 report From Rhetoric to Reality: Reframing U.S. Turkey Policy, the Bipartisan Policy Center argued that Washington “should be more open with Ankara about its concerns about issues like press freedom, freedom of assembly, rule of law, and the Turkish government’s increasing sectarianism.” Since the release of that report, the AKP government has taken ever more authoritarian steps, particularly with regard to restricting media freedoms. The U.S. government has begun expressing its concern more vocally, but its statements have failed to match the AKP’s behavior. Last week’s Zaman takeover represented a dangerous new stage in Turkey’s attempt to control dissenting voices. Yet U.S. officials resorted to declaring themselves “troubled” or “deeply disturbed”—sentiments already used for previous incidents. If, as unfortunately seems likely, attacks on press freedoms grow more severe, Washington must think seriously about how to translate its principled rhetoric into action that matches the reality in Turkey. Congress, which has previously urged the State Department to be more vocal on this issue, might consider making a similar call again today. And, at the very least, a high-profile, public statement from President Barack Obama would help make the full measure of U.S. concern more apparent to Turkey’s government and its people.

August 31, 2015: Three Vice News Journalists working in southeastern Turkey arrested on terrorism charges.

Response by State Department Deputy spokesman Mark Toner: “We urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold universal democratic values, including due process, freedom of expression, as well as access to media and information.”

October 27, 2015: Turkish government seizes Koza-Ipek Holding, a media conglomerate with links to the Gülen movement.

Response by State Department spokesman John Kirby: “We continue to urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold universal democratic values, values that are enshrined in the Turkish Government and constitution itself, including due process, freedom of expression and assembly, and of course access to media and information… We continue to have the same concerns that we’ve had before in terms of the right to free media and free speech and assembly.”

Response by White House spokesman Joshua Earnest: “We have both publicly and privately raised our concerns about freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Turkey… [the Obama administration is] deeply concerned that media outlets and individual journalists critical of the government were subject to pressure and intimidation…”

November 26, 2015: Cumhuriyet reporter Can Dündar and editor Erdem Gül arrested on espionage charges.

Response by Ambassador John Bass, during a Dec 7 2015 visit to the Cumhuriyet newsroom: “I just wanted to stop by and say ‘Hello’ and tell you how much my colleagues and I at the Embassy admire the work you do and how important we believe the work you do is for strengthening the quality of democracy in Turkey. As you know, the United States believes strongly that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are essential elements of any strong, healthy, vibrant democracy…. Obviously, not everyone has that same belief about the importance of journalism, and sometimes that means you find yourselves under pressure., I’m sure that makes it difficult to be in the newsroom on certain days. But I just want you to know, as I said at the outset, we believe strongly in the work you do and believe strongly that the work you do is very important to the quality of democracy.”

Response by Vice President Biden, during a January 21, 2016 meeting with journalists and academics: “If you don’t have an ability to express your opinion, to criticize a policy, to offer competing ideas without fear of intimidation or retribution, the country is robbed of opportunity and the country is being robbed of possibilities… [freedom of expression and democracy matter] not only to Turks but to America.”

Biden was also reported to have told Can Dündar’s son, in a private meeting, that he should be “proud” of his father who was “very brave.”

March 4, 2016: Turkish government seizes Zaman

Response by Ambassador John Bass, via Twitter: “Deeply disturbed to hear reports that trusteeship is interfering with Zaman‘s editorial process. Also watching with concern reports of teargas and rubber bullets against those protesting the takeover. Judicial process must be respected, yes – but so must the importance of free press and due process”

Response by State Department Spokesman John Kirby: “We’ve seen the reports that an Istanbul court has placed Zaman newspaper in particular – I think that’s what you’re asking about – into trusteeship. And we see this as the latest in a series of troubling judicial and law enforcement actions taken by the Turkish Government targeting media outlets and others critical of it…. As Turkey’s friend and NATO ally – and we do count ourself as a friend of Turkey and we certainly are a NATO ally – we urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold the universal democratic values enshrined in their own constitution, including freedom of speech and especially freedom of the press. In a democratic society, as I’ve said many, many times, critical opinions should be encouraged, not silenced.”

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