Stung by Envoy’s Criticism, Minister Claims Turkey Has Greater Press Freedom Than the US

By Patrick Goodenough | February 18, 2011 | 3:21 AM EST

New U. S. ambassador Francis Riccardione meets with Turkey's President Abdullah Gul at the presidential palace in Ankara on Jan. 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, File)

( – A Turkish government minister’s claim Thursday that his country enjoys greater press freedom than the United States flies in the face of a recent European Union assessment and Turkey’s steady decline in the annual rankings of a leading media watchdog.

Newly-installed U.S. ambassador to Ankara Francis Ricciardone sparked a diplomatic row this week with remarks about press freedom, drawing a sharp rebuke from the Islamist-leaning government, which accused him of interfering in Turkey’s domestic affairs.

Following the arrest of four journalists in connection with an alleged “coup plot,” Ricciardone said Tuesday the U.S. was trying to understand why Turkey detains journalists despite a stated policy of supporting a free press.

The detained journalists are linked to a news Web site opposed to the government’s policies whose Istanbul offices were raided by police Monday. Critics have long claimed that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has used convoluted coup plotting allegations as a tool to weaken the military-backed secular establishment.

Hundreds of serving and retired military officers and a number of journalists face criminal charges related to the alleged “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” plots to overthrow the elected government.

“The opposition parties and the government say they support freedom of the press,” Ricciardone told Turkish reporters after the latest detentions. “We are following the process closely. Journalists are being detained on the one hand, while addresses about freedom of the speech are given on the other. We do not understand this.”

Against the backdrop of regional unrest, Turkey’s long-sought accession to the European Union, and a general election in the summer, the AKP is highly sensitive to outside criticism.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said a senior diplomat in his ministry informed Ricciardone on Wednesday that it was not appropriate for an ambassador to pass judgment on an ongoing criminal investigation.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley backed Ricciardone.

“We stand by the ambassador’s statement,” he said. “We do have broad concerns about trends involving intimidation of journalists in Turkey, and we have raised that directly with the Turkish government and we’ll continue to do so.”

Ricciardone used the opportunity of a business luncheon in Istanbul Thursday to quell the controversy over his earlier comments.

“We will respectfully listen to your debates to learn and I hope not to participate in them,” he said. “But I should tell you that the United States will always be on the side of freedom and rule of law.”

In his reaction to the envoy’s earlier remarks, Interior Minister Besir Atalay said Thursday that Turkey enjoyed greater press freedom than the United States.

“Turkey has a distinguished Press Law, and there is much more freedom of press in Turkey than other democratic countries in the world” the Anadolu state news agency quoted him as saying in Ankara.

“With regard to press freedom, it’s much better in Turkey than in the United States.”

Independent press freedom advocates say otherwise.

In its annual “world press freedom index,” the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 138th out of 178 countries last year. The U.S. was in 20th place.

The index, which is based on 43 criteria assessing the state of press freedom in each country, has been compiled every year since 2002. Turkey’s ranking over that period has dropped from a high of 98 in 2005 to 103 in 2008, 123 in 2009 and 138 in 2010.

As a raid takes place inside the premises, Turkish police stand at the entrance of the headquarters of Oda TV Web site in Istanbul on Monday, Feb. 14, 2011. (AP Photo/Ibrahim Usta)

‘Pressure on the media’

Critics have accused the government of using the legal system to silence dissenting voices in the media.

“Authorities paraded journalists into court on anti-terror, criminal defamation, and state security charges as they tried to suppress critical news and commentary on issues involving national identity, the Kurdish minority, and an alleged anti-government conspiracy,” the Committee to Protect Journalists stated in a report on attacks on the press in Turkey in 2010.

According to a Turkish journalists’ body some 2,000 reporters face criminal charges and 58 are imprisoned for their writing.

In its latest assessment of Turkey’s progress in meeting the standards necessary to join the European Union, the 27-member union’s executive Commission concluded last November that “significant efforts are still needed on fundamental rights. Journalists repeatedly face prosecutions and convictions, and pressure on the media undermines freedom of the press in practice.”

Among problems cited in the report:

- Turkey Press Law – the one Atalay described Thursday as “distinguished” – is being “used to restrict freedom of expression.”

- The European Court on Human Rights continues to receive a “high number” of complaints of Turkish freedom of expression violations

- Insults against the Turkish nation remain criminalized under the Turkish Criminal Code.

- Journalists accused of violating the principle of confidentiality in an ongoing judicial process face prosecution and trial.

- Web sites are frequently banned.

U.S. ambassador to Turkey Francis Riccardione addresses a business meeting in Istanbul on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. (AP Photo)

Envoy: We don’t believe Turkey is shifting away from the West

At 43 percent in the latest opinion poll – 13 points ahead of the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) – Erdogan’s AKP is strongly placed to win a third term in June elections.

The outspoken prime minister has become popular among many Turks, and across the region, for vocally criticizing Israeli policies even as he worries Western governments by drawing closer to Iran and Syria.

The AKP government has strongly rejected accusations that it is moving Turkey, a NATO member, away from the West.

In comments largely overshadowed by the press freedom furor, Ricciardone also said on Tuesday that the Obama administration does not believe Turkey’s would “turn its back on the West.”

“I don't believe this at all,” Turkey’s Today’s Zaman daily quoted Ricciardone as saying in Turkish.

“More importantly, neither [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton nor [President] Obama believe that. There are claims that Turkey will turn its back on the West, that it will be like Iran. We do not believe those claims.”

Obama appointed Ricciardone during the congressional recess in December, after former Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) blocked his nomination in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Brownback said that as ambassador to Egypt, Ricciardone had not been aggressive enough in promoting democracy and respect for human rights. Ricciardone served in Cairo from 2005 to 2008.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow