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Turkey Stands with Free Press Abroad, Jails Journalists at Home

By Jessica Michek

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

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Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu traveled to Paris on Sunday to join 55 leaders from around the world and millions of people in a unity march to pay tribute to victims of deadly attacks in France that left 17 people dead. On his official Twitter account, Davutoğlu wrote a post in French: “I am in Paris in solidarity with the French people against terrorism.” His presence there, however, smacked of hypocrisy: standing with European leaders condemning the terrorist attack on France’s free press is at odds with Turkey’s witch hunts against journalists and its support for radicals in Syria.

On December 14, the Turkish government carried out a series of raids against the media, detaining high-profile staff of the newspaper Zaman and Samanyolu TV due to their criticism of the government. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has lashed out at these and other journalists, judges, police and members of the bureaucracy for seeking to create a “parallel state” in Turkey that aims to overthrow his administration. Several days later, a man protesting the arrests was also arrested for carrying a placard with a political cartoon depicting the whittling away of Turkey’s civil rights and democracy.

Such heavy-handed tactics against critical media are nothing new for Erdoğan’s government. An international, freedom-of-the-press watchdog group Freedom House demoted Turkey’s press freedom from “partly free” to “not free” in 2013 following the harassment of journalists in response to the Gezi Park protests, during which dozens of journalists were fired or forced to resign over their coverage of the demonstrations. Turkey topped the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) list of jailed journalists in 2012 and 2013, though it fell in its 2014 rankings – assembled prior to the December 14 arrests. Following the media raids, the executive director of CPJ said, “Turkish authorities, who have a history of politicized prosecutions against the media, do not tolerate critical reporting.”

Turkey also has a history of engaging and supporting radical Islamists in the Middle East. Through the Syrian conflict, Turkey has been accused of secretly aiding extremist groups in the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Though the Turkish government has denied its relationship with Syrian jihadists, including the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), there is credible evidence that Turkey has, at best, turned a blind eye to the flow of fighters, money and weapons through Turkey to jihadists in Syria and perhaps even actively facilitated it.

The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, which Turkey has nominally joined, has entreated Turkey to take greater measures to seal its borders to extremists. However, Turkey has proven either unable or unwilling to do so. Indeed, Hayat Boumeddiene, a suspected accomplice of the Paris attackers, traveled to Turkey on January 2 and crossed into Syria on January 8.

The horrific attacks in Paris demonstrate that we are still in the grips of a struggle between liberty and violent fundamentalism. Davutoğlu and Turkey’s government claim to stand for the former but have repeatedly proven all too willing to silence critical voices and support extreme ones.

Seyma Akyol and William Spach contributed to this post.