Foreign Policy Blogs

Mr. Erdogan’s Media “Freedom”

Earlier this month, thousands took to the streets in Istanbul and Ankara demanding the release of journalists arrested for suspected ties to the Ergenekon conspiracy.  Charges have yet to be pressed, leading many to surmise it was not conspiracy but criticism—of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)—that prompted the arrests.

The journalists’ detention put Erdogan’s rhetoric about democracy promotion to the test. Many inside Turkey—and outside—see the arrests as a transparent attempt by the AKP to stay in power.  In fact, since the AKP became the ruling majority in 2002, it has taken every opportunity to increase its stranglehold on Turkish government. 

Last September’s referendum was a huge victory for the AKP.  It helped AKP leadership increase its control of the judiciary, weaken checks and balances and cripple the military (the traditional check on government power in Turkey). 

AKP has taken full advantage of amendments that expand membership of the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors and increase the number of judges on the Supreme Court.  The parliamentary majority (aka the AKP) selects the people to fill those new slots thereby manipulating the political system.

Some see the AKP as pushing Turkey in an Islamist direction.  According to the New York Times, Ahmet Sik, a journalism professor at Bilgi University, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Ergenekon conspiracy, a group of military officials and politicians accused of planning a coup. Sik, however, has a strong record of investigative reporting of illegal Islamist networks operating within Turkey. Civil society leaders like Sik post a particular threat to AKP leadership as they unveil AKP’s political operations.

With parliamentary elections looming in June, the AKP is eager to maintain its control.  However, if the larger than usual demonstrations in Istanbul’s Taksim Square are any indication, the AKP’s restrictions on press freedom have won the party little support. 

The government’s attacks on media freedom have not escaped the attention of the international community.  Turkey is a candidate for European Union (EU) membership, and Brussels has been quite vocal in condemning the limitations on press freedom.  In its 2010 Progress Report on Turkey, the European Parliament points to the recent arrests of journalists and expresses concern regarding the deterioration in freedom of the press in Turkey. 

The U.S., however, has simply shrugged its shoulders.  Taking a softer approach on the issue, the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, merely stated: “This is a domestic matter for Turkey.  We [the U.S.] are only following it.  Turkey wants a free press.  Turkish people want a free press…. Both the opposition and the government say that they support a free press.”  As if this whitewashing wasn’t enough, Riccardone further blandly stated:

These are grave allegations for any democracy.  In your country as mine, people expect the principle of presumption of innocence to be applied until the trial is over, and people expect the judicial process to be transparent and in accordance with law and judicial procedures.

Many suspects arrested under Ergenekon-related allegations have yet to be charged and the four-year investigation has yet to produce even one conviction.  Turkey’s relationship with liberal democracy is backsliding, yet the U.S. is giving Turkey’s leadership a free pass. If the Obama Administration is serious about promoting democracy in the Islamic world, the United States must send Turkish leadership a clear message that intimidation of journalists and punishing those who dare criticize the government is unacceptable. 

These days Turkey is looking less and less like an inspiration to North Africa and the Middle East.  There is too little respect for democracy and human rights, which are requirements of being part of the Euro-Atlantic family.  Sadly, the AKP is putting Turkey on a track toward autocracy – even if they build it partially through the ballot box.  The U.S. must take a stand for American values.  It’s past time for the Obama Administration to constructively engage Turkey’s leadership regarding its feeble standards of democracy and human rights.



Morgan Roach

Morgan Roach is a Research Associate in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. She currently works on transatlantic relations, Middle Eastern and African affairs. She received her MSc. in European Studies from the London School of Economics and her B.A. in Government from Sweet Briar College.