Letter to President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

November 13, 2014 4:09 PM ET

November 4, 2014

H.E. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

President of the Republic of Turkey

T.C. Cumhurbaşkanlığı Genel Sekreterliği

06689 Çankaya, Ankara

Turkey

Via Facsimile: +90 312 470 13 16

Via Email: [email protected]

Via the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Dear President Erdogan,

We are writing to thank you for taking the time to meet with us on October 2 and to follow up on the meeting, which helped us gain a better understanding of your perspective of the media environment in Turkey. We appreciated the opportunity to discuss our concerns directly with you and would like to respond to some of the issues that were raised in the meeting.

Our delegation also had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ. We are writing to them separately.

While we appreciated your openness and candor in that meeting, we are disappointed that you did not make a general statement in support of press freedom and the work of journalists in Turkey. We believe that such a statement is essential and could go a long way in improving the relationship between the government and media. Journalists in Turkey operate in an environment of uncertainty, hostility, and pressure, according to many journalists with whom we spoke during our visit to Istanbul. Many face legal action, including libel claims brought by high officials.

It is the role of the press to provide a critical perspective, to hold public officials accountable, and to expose wrongdoing, corruption, and abuse of power. And while journalists who engage in such activities inevitably come into conflict with officials, they should have the principled support of the country's leaders, who understand that such reporting advances the long-term strategic interests of Turkey and strengthens its democracy.

During our meeting, Mr. President, you made a distinction between insult and critical reporting. When asked to clarify the difference, you suggested that "Turks understand the difference" between critical reporting, which you said you welcome, and insult, which you said you abhor. You said that it was up to the judiciary to determine where the line should be drawn.

With all due deference, Mr. President, this is not a workable arrangement nor one that conforms to international standards. In fact, government officials, who voluntarily chose to enter public life, must withstand both criticism and insult in order to ensure a free and open public debate.

And while it is understandable that you would defend yourself against criticism in the media, we have been troubled that some have interpreted your criticism of individual journalists as license to attack and vilify them on social media and in the press. In some instances, these campaigns of harassment, which appear to be coordinated and orchestrated, have resulted in death threats.

While we appreciate your concern that the Internet can be used by militant groups like ISIS to recruit followers, we found your comment that you are "increasingly against the Internet" to be troubling. Narrow, legally proscribed measures to limit the online recruitment by terrorist organizations may well be an appropriate response to the current challenges, but the Turkish government has taken far-ranging actions to restrict critical speech online. Earlier this year, authorities blocked Twitter and YouTube for extended periods of time, and Parliament approved a restrictive Internet bill that allows for the quick blocking of websites and individual URLs the government deems harmful.

Wholesale censorship of online speech is not compatible with Turkey's democracy, and any attempt to restrict the free flow of information undermines investor confidence.

Finally, while we recognize and applaud the release of dozens of jailed journalists in Turkey, we are concerned about the seven who remain in prison. We had the opportunity to discuss this issue at length with Justice Minister Bozdağ, and we will follow up directly in our letter to him.

In order to help strengthen press freedom and democracy in Turkey, we ask that as president and head of state, you consider the following actions:

  • Make a positive statement in support of press freedom and rights of journalists in Turkey.

  • Refrain from pursuing any legal action against the press during the period in which you serve as head of state. In many democratic societies, political leaders are prohibited from pursuing private legal action while in office.

  • Make clear to anyone who might interpret your criticism of the media or individual journalists that such statements are not license to attack or vilify them. Be cognizant of the ways in which your statements made by you could be misinterpreted.

  • Help ensure that journalists are able to carry out their critical function without interference, harassment, or imprisonment.

By addressing these concerns, you can help ensure that that Turkey's reputation as a regional leader is strengthened.

Mr. President, we once again thank you for taking the time to meet with our delegation and for speaking to us with such candor and openness. Please accept that we are responding with similar candor, recognizing the nature of the relationship that we have established. We consider this letter to be the beginning of what we hope will be an ongoing dialogue.

We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon

CPJ Executive Director

CC List:

Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey's Prime Minister

Bekir Bozdağ, Turkey's Justice Minister

Lutfullah Göktas, Chief Media Advisor to the President of Turkey

Mustafa Varank, Chief Advisor to the President of Turkey

Serdar Kılıç, Turkey's Ambassador to the United States

Sandra Mims Rowe, Chairman of the Board, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

Anne Garrels, CPJ board member

David Schlesinger, CPJ board member

Jacob Weisberg, CPJ board member

Andrew Alexander, CPJ board member

Steven Isenberg, CPJ board member

Mhamed Krichen, CPJ board member

Nina Ognianova, CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator

Alison Bethel McKenzie, Executive Director of the International Press Institute

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