Amid U.S. Uproar Over AP Phone Records, Turkey's PM Gets a Pass on Press Freedom

By Patrick Goodenough | May 16, 2013 | 7:16 PM EDT

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan checks for rain during a Rose Garden news conference at the White House, Thursday, May 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

( – Campaigners urged President Obama to raise press freedom concerns with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Thursday, but the only media freedom issue raised during their joint press conference was much closer to home – the secret seizure of Associated Press phone records.

Under Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, press freedom has deteriorated sharply. In its annual international assessment of press freedom, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders this year ranks Turkey 154th out of 179 countries, and calls it “currently the world’s biggest prison for journalists.”

On the eve of Erdogan’s visit, Reporters Without Borders head Christophe Deloire joined with Committee to Protect Journalists executive director Joel Simon in urging Obama to give him the message that “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.”

But during remarks at the White House before the two leaders took reporters’ questions, Obama referred only obliquely to the issue, telling Erdogan, “Just as the United States has stood with you in your long search for security, we will support efforts in Turkey to uphold the rule of law and good governance and human rights for all.”

For Erdogan’s part, the only mention of democratic norms referred to the situation in Turkey’s eastern neighbor.

“Our goal is to see the tyranny, the dictatorship go away in Syria and to be replaced with democracy,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “And I think this is a collective responsibility on the part of all countries that believe in democracy.”

During question time Erdogan was not troubled by any queries about media freedom. (Instead it was Obama who was asked about the AP wiretapping scandal, and in reply spoke about the need to strike the proper balance between national security requirements and a free press.)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomes Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Tehran in October 2009. (AP Photo)

Troubling policies at home and abroad

“American policymakers might shrug off Turkey’s domestic turn away from rule of law if it did not presage a transformation of Turkish foreign policy,” American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin wrote Thursday. “Erdogan’s agenda has more to do with the promotion of Islamic solidarity than a fight against terrorism or dictatorship.”

Obama has an especially close relationship with Erdogan, and his administration – like its predecessor – characterizes AKP-ruled Turkey as a “model” of democracy in a Muslim-majority nation, an example for other countries in the region to follow.

That depiction of Turkey has survived both an authoritarian shift at home and foreign policies that have drawn sharp criticism in other quarters, including Erdogan’s embracing of Hamas and Iran, and public hostility towards Israel.

While Erdogan portrays himself as a leading supporter of the “Arab spring,” before the outbreak of the civil wars in Libya and Syria he fostered warm relations with both regimes, despite their abysmal human rights records.

Turkey and Syria in 2009 held joint military exercises and the following year – less than a year before the Syrian conflict erupted – Erdogan hosted President Bashar Assad in Istanbul where the two exchanged declarations of mutual support.

In Libya, the Turkish leader opposed NATO intervention to stop the bloodshed in early 2011, before making a U-turn after passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone. The previous year, Erdogan had been awarded a “peace prize” by Muammar Gaddafi.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow