Security issues have defined the U.S.-Turkish bilateral relationship since the upheavals that swept the Arab world in 2010-2011, leaving Turkey and the United States searching for stable, democratic partners. The Obama administration had wisely cultivated Prime Minister Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2009, when the President visited Ankara on his first trip abroad. This policy made sense — Turkey is a NATO ally, and legitimate electoral success and impressive economic growth had made Erdoğan one of the most influential leaders in the Middle East, a key interlocutor between that region and the West.
But, despite the pressing security concerns shared by the two countries, U.S. officials should ensure that important issues of democratic governance and freedom of expression don’t fall off the agenda. As a new brief by the Center for American Progress outlines, press freedom in Turkey has come under increasing threat. Dozens of journalists critical of the government have been jailed, and hefty fines have been levied against media outlets seen as opposing Erdoğan and the AKP.
The Turkish government’s increasingly hard line towards critics in the press has raised doubts about the course of Turkey’s democratic development. Erdoğan and Turkey’s joint popularity, and the country’s economic success, had sparked talk of a “Turkish model” of democratic development, secular government compatible with Islamic conservatism, and economic growth.
For the wider region, this narrative provided an example to moderates seeking to shape new political cultures in the wake of the uprisings. But the suppression of certain forms of political discourse and imprisonment or intimidation of journalists undermines the persuasive power of this example. For this reason, along with the United States’ desire to promote freedom of the press and expression, President Obama should raise the issue with Prime Minister Erdoğan on Thursday.
The U.S. is right to cultivate Turkey as a secure democratic partner with whom it can engage the broader Middle East, and therefore should clearly voice concerns about the deterioration of press freedom. Given the wave of popular mobilization in the region, it is more important than ever to preserve the democratic nature of the “Turkish model” and allow political dissent.