Istanbul (AFP) – US Vice President Joe Biden on Friday strongly criticised Turkey for failing to set the right “example” on freedom of expression, slamming the imprisonment of journalists and investigation of academics who criticised government policy.
In a rebuke of rare vehemence for Washington’s key NATO ally, Biden said Turkey’s most recent record in freedom of expression under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is “not the kind of example that needs to be set”.
Speaking at a meeting with civil society representatives in Istanbul, Biden said the United States wanted to see Turkey set a “strong example” for the whole region of what a “vibrant democracy” means.
“The more Turkey succeeds, the stronger the message sent to the entire Middle East and parts of the world who are only beginning to grapple with the notion of freedom,” said Biden.
But he lamented recent developments in Turkey, which have seen the imprisonment since November 26 of the Cumhuriyet daily editor-in-chief Can Dundar and its Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul on charges of revealing classified information.
Prosecutors have also launched a vast investigation into more than 1,200 academics who signed a petition criticising the military crackdown in the Kurdish-dominated southeast.
Some two dozen academics were detained for questioning and while all were released, they remain under investigation.
The government has also gained notoriety for ordering blocks on YouTube, Twitter and other social networks during times of crisis.
“When the media are intimidated or imprisoned for critical reporting, when Internet freedom is curtailed and social media sites like YouTube or Twitter are shut down, and more than 1,000 academics are accused of treason simply by signing a petition, that’s not the kind of example that needs to be set,” said Biden.
– ‘Proud of Dundar’ –
He added: “If you do not have the ability to express your own opinion to criticise policy… then your country is being robbed of opportunity.”
The six civil society representatives that Biden met in the talks included several prominent journalists who are known to be critical of Erdogan.
In a separate encounter, Biden also met the wife and son of the imprisoned Cumhuriyet editor Can Dundar.
“He (Biden) told me that I had a very brave father. He told me I had to be proud of him,” the son, Ege Dundar, was quoted as saying by the Cihan news agency after the meeting.
The US vice president, who arrived in Istanbul on Thursday night, is due to meet Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for critical talks on Saturday. Erdogan has in the past reacted with fury to American criticism of Turkey’s rights record.
Also on Friday, Biden paid his respects amid tight security at the site of of the January 12 suicide bombing blamed on Islamist jihadists in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul that killed 10 German tourists.
The US ambassador to Ankara John Bass had already raised hackles among government supporters by saying that the investigation against the academics risked having a “chilling effect” on political discourse in the country.
Ankara’s controversial mayor Melih Gokcek, a member of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), hit back at Bass by telling him to go home and saying he was “a wrong choice for the US in Turkey.”
But Biden said he wanted to “make clear that the President (Barack Obama) and I stand by Ambassador Bass”.