Engaging Turkey’s leadership

Last month, a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute met with senior Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ.

The meetings were contentious, with Erdoğan and Davutoğlu expressing displeasure with what they consider to be unfair, partisan coverage of Turkey by the domestic and international media. But we also made progress, securing commitments from the Turkish government to protect journalists under threat, reform laws incompatible with free expression, and allow an independent review of the seven remaining cases of journalists imprisoned for their work in Turkey.

Last week we followed up, sending detailed letters to the officials with whom we met. These letters summarize the discussion, reiterate specific commitments, and call on senior officials to take additional steps to safeguard press freedom. You can read the letters to Davutoğlu and Bozdağ here.

One concern we raised in the meetings was Turkey’s record of imprisoning journalists. Bozdağ made the point that the seven journalists who remain in prison have either been charged or convicted of serious crimes. We noted that journalists are not above the law, but pointed out that many of the 50 plus journalists who were jailed at the height of the crackdown in 2012 and have now been released faced similarly serious charges.

Our point is that journalists imprisoned in Turkey have not been given the due process to which they are legally entitled. This is why we believe the Justice Minster’s offer to make the legal files available for independent review was a constructive response to our criticism.

I would contrast this with Erdoğan’s response, which was to publicly criticize CPJ and IPI in a speech on November 2, where he described our efforts to ensure due process as part of a campaign of “psychological war against Turkey in the western media, based on complete lies.

These kinds of outbursts by the president raise the temperature rather than lower it. Perhaps this is the point, but Turkish and international journalists feel they are locked in an adversarial battle with the senior officials. The level of confrontation does not benefit the exercise of independent journalism or Turkish democracy. This is why in our letter to the president we urge him to make a public statement in support of press freedom, something that he pointedly declined to do during our meeting.

Our letter to Erdoğan is unusually frank, but we mean no disrespect. In fact, we appreciate the candor and directness with which the president spoke to our delegation since it gave us a deeper and more nuanced understanding of his views on the media. The president emphasized in our meeting that he appreciates and values constructive criticism. Our letter is offered in that spirit.