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The Cost Of Arresting Journalists To Turkey’s Image Abroad

Essay: Criticism from European and US officials should remind Turkey’s leaders that press freedom is key to how its democracy is judged in the West

Turkish journalists (EMU)

Turkey faces an outcry over last week's arrests of a group of journalists, including two internationally acclaimed reporters who were investigating a powerful Islamic brotherhood network. They were detained on charges of belonging to Ergenekon, a shadowy network led by ex-military and security men to oust the Islamic-rooted government in the early 2000s.

By Sedat Ergin

ISTANBUL - The arrests of Odatv staff as well as journalists Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener as part of the 18th round of Ergenekon-related detentions has had a profound impact on the outside world's perspective on Turkey, particularly when it comes to press freedoms. Examining reactions in the West to the arrests of these journalists, you notice that it is seen as a move directly targeting press freedom, with responsibility squarely attributed to the government.

The strongest reaction thus far has come from the European Parliament. The Parliament's Turkey report was amended two days ago to include these developments -- using strong language. The names of Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener are used twice in the 10-page report.

The report cites "censorship" and expresses concern due to the "worsening of press freedom" and invites the government to instill the "principles of a free press." The European Parliament also says that it will be closely monitoring the situation of Nedim Şener, Ahmet Şık and other journalists who might be the target of police and judicial harassment.

Jerzy Buzek, head of the European Parliament, has personally expressed his concern about the situation. So clearly, the arrest of these journalists has become an important agenda item for the Parliament.

The European Commission breaks its silence

At the same time, the European Commission has also expressed its discomfort over the situation via Stephen Fule, EU Commissioner for Enlargement. Although the Commission is generally timid when it comes to criticizing the Turkish government, the reaction from the Parliament as well as the European public has apparently prompted them to speak up. And now, the Commission has officially posed the Turkish government a series of questions related to press freedoms and demanded a formal response.

The EU's Ankara representative Mark Pierini said they would formulate a roadmap based on the government's responses without necessarily waiting for the EU Progress Report on Turkey to come out. This means that the EU is considering taking up a strong public position vis-à-vis press freedom without waiting for the fall when the Progress Report will be published.

The developments were also criticized in official statements from the U.S. State Department and the French Foreign Ministry, as well as respected human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and well-known press organizations like Reporters without Borders and International Press Institute.

Added to this is a wave of criticism in the Western media that is growing stronger, including a Financial Times story titled, "Turkey Must Halt Media Intimidation" and a TIME article: ‘Why is Turkey Arresting Journalists?" It is reasonable to expect that this wave of criticism will continue to grow over the next few days.

The West has turned negative

That such a negative approach has so quickly taken root is related not just to the fact that arresting journalists is something the West has zero tolerance for, but also because it comes on top of an accumulation of other developments.

Criticism first surfaced in 2009 with the tax fines levied at the Dogan Group (the country's main media group, and owner of Hurriyet), continued as the number of investigations into journalists increased, and has been bolstered further by the belief that auto-censorship in the Turkish press is on the rise.

This has been reflected in the last two EU progress reports as well as the State Department's human rights reports. The most recent arrests came on top of these other developments, which compounded the shocking effect they had.

At this point, it is simply stating the facts to say that the government has lost the support of the outside world vis-à-vis press freedoms, and is facing a serious image problem.

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