Human Rights in Turkey: Old Wine in a New Bottle?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 47

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: AP)

Turkish media coverage of the "U.S. State Department’s 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" highlights how human rights issues might fall victim to domestic political discussions and strategic calculations. As in previous years the 2008 report on Turkey, despite identifying the progress achieved by the Turkish government, also emphasized the areas in which serious problems remained. Among other issues, the report referred to the rise in documented cases of torture, unlawful killings by security forces, poor conditions in prisons, interference in judiciary independence, limitations on the freedom of expression, restrictions on non-Muslim groups, violence against women, child marriages, and corruption (, February 25).

Turkey’s mainstream media outlets that are critical of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), especially those controlled by the Dogan Media Group (DMG), covered the report more extensively than in previous years. In particular, they highlighted parts of the report that condemned the government’s activities that allegedly contravened freedom of expression and created an environment of self-censorship for the media. Indeed, the report cited Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s lawsuits against journalists and cartoonists, his row with the DMG, and the fact that several large companies owning news agencies had instructed their journalists not to criticize the government for fear of losing business.

Attention to the report in the Turkish media has as much to do with its timing and the ongoing political discussions in the country as it does with the report’s intrinsic merits. The AKP government has been engaged in a fight with the DMG, which is unlikely to ease anytime soon (EDM, February 20). Against this background, the report’s criticism of certain practices provided much-needed ammunition to the DMG’s struggle against the government. The DMG used the report to make a case that the group’s own criticisms of government policies were not a result of parochial business interests but rather were objective assessments. Even liberal columnist Mustafa Akyol, a supporter of Erdogan, concluded that "the prime minister needs a moment of reflection and self-criticism. He needs to soften his rhetoric and rationalize his focus" (Hurriyet Daily News, March 5).

In response, Erdogan maintained that the heavy dose of censure in the report was a result of "an international campaign" by certain circles. Without naming the DMG, he was implying that the media group was behind this campaign. "I will ask Hillary Clinton about the report," Erdogan added, referring to his forthcoming meeting with Clinton on March 7 (Taraf, March 1).

It is no surprise that Erdogan’s attitude came under attack. Sedat Ergin claimed that the report had been prepared a long time before the recent tax row, and Erdogan’s accusation of an "international campaign" by the DMG was simply nonsense (Milliyet, March 6). Likewise, Burak Bekdil noted that Erdogan had continuously preferred to ignore the DMG’s critical news coverage by claiming that the DMG’s critical viewpoint was in line with that of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Arguing that the correctness of the DMG’s stance was affirmed by the report, Bekdil maintained that the organization followed a neutral line. Bekdil then sought to ridicule Erdogan, saying, "Apparently, the CHP partisans have not only infiltrated the DMG but also crossed the Atlantic and successfully penetrated the U.S. State Department" (Hurriyet Daily News, March 4).

During his private meeting with Clinton (EDM, March 9), Erdogan indeed raised this issue. According to Hurriyet, the flagship publication of the DMG, Clinton said that references to democracy, freedom of the press, and human rights reflected the high value Washington placed on these institutions; and she added that freedom of the press was an essential part of democracy (Hurriyet, March 7; Vatan, March 8).

Other media outlets concluded, however, that Clinton had failed to challenge Erdogan on this issue forcefully. In an interview with CNNTurk, Clinton confirmed that she had discussed the report with Erdogan. Noting that such reports were prepared annually, Clinton said, "I fully understand…no politician ever likes the press criticizing them…overall…we think that Turkey has made tremendous progress in freedom of speech and freedom of religion and human rights, and we’re proud of that" (, March 8). This tacit support for Erdogan was strongly criticized by The Washington Post, which wrote that Clinton had put economic and strategic interests before human rights advocacy and undermined the State Department’s efforts in this area (The Washington Post, March 10).

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, in an interview with NTV, attributed the publicity about the report to efforts by the DMG, without naming it, and noted that it was not a major item during the Erdogan-Clinton meeting. He went on to say that "The State Department too could make a mistake. This is not a report written by Clinton herself; it was written by lower-ranking officials, and there is no need to make a big fuss about it" (, March 8).

The controversy over the coverage of the report shows how the commitment to human rights on the part of Turkish political actors remains tenuous. When it suits their agenda, they do not hesitate to benefit from coalitions they built with worldwide human rights and democracy advocacy networks to exert pressure on their opponents. When international criticism works against their interests, however, they denounce other groups’ resorting to similar tactics of using international leverage and label them as insignificant, or manipulated.