The government recently warned the US ambassador in Ankara to stay out of Turkey's internal affairs, referring to his comments on freedom of the press, which followed the detention of journalists on charges of links with Ergenekon, a clandestine network which prosecutors say has plotted to topple the civilian government by fomenting chaos.
“There is an ongoing investigation, and we do not find it appropriate for any ambassador to pass judgment on the case,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told reporters during a visit to Nepal on Thursday, emphasizing that Turkey respects the principles of the rule of law. “We are confident in this respect, but it is important that ambassadors be careful about their remarks,” he said.
Ambassador Francis Riccardone told Turkish reporters on Tuesday that the US is trying to make sense of Turkey's stated support for freedom of the press and the detention of journalists. “On the one hand there exists a stated policy supporting a free press. On the other hand, journalists are put in detention. We are trying to make sense of this,” Ricciardone said.
He was responding to a question regarding a police raid on anti-government website Oda TV. The police detained its owner, journalist Soner Yalçın, and three colleagues over alleged links to the Ergenekon network, leading to media accusations that press freedoms are being curbed.
Ricciardone also said that he did not know what the charges were and that it was a domestic matter for Turkey. He reiterated the same in remarks on Thursday, insisting that he had not commented on the "merits" of Oda TV's particular case but said there were certain things "he was trying to understand” as a foreigner. “Freedom of the press is as important for us as it is for you. We always defend freedoms,” Ricciardone was quoted as telling reporters. “Of course Turkey is a state governed by rule of law. There is no question on that.”
Similarly, Davutoğlu spoke of a “misunderstanding” surrounding the debate over Ricciardone's remarks, explaining that Ricciardone had told Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu during a meeting on Wednesday that he meant to underline that he did not have enough experience in Turkey to fully understand what is going on. Davutoğlu also said there was no official US initiative on this matter.
But in Washington, the State Department was more direct. Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley said that Washington stands by Ricciardone's remarks and made it clear that the US is concerned over the treatment of journalists in Turkey. “We do have broad concerns about trends involving intimidation of journalists in Turkey and we have raised that directly with the Turkish government and we'll continue to do so,” Crowley told reporters.
In Ankara, Interior Minister Beşir Atalay was quick to respond to Crowley, praising the state of press freedoms in Turkey. “In terms of press freedoms, Turkey is more advanced than the United States,” Atalay said when asked if Crowley's remarks are a sign of tension in US ties. "Turkey is a country which has more press freedoms than many advanced democratic countries," he went on to say.
Earlier, Hüseyin Çelik, a deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), said there was a line that ambassadors should not cross, although he declined to directly criticize Ricciardone. "Of course, ambassadors cannot interfere in our internal affairs. They can't design our domestic policy. They have an area designated for them on this subject," he said on Wednesday.
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç also commented on the debate, saying that whether journalists were involved in illegal activities unrelated to freedom of expression was a matter for the courts. "Maybe the esteemed ambassador must serve a bit longer to see this detail," Arınç said.
Opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who frequently accuses the government of silencing opposition through the Ergenekon case, was reluctant to join the debate on Ricciardone's remarks. “This is what we know: There is no freedom of the press in Turkey,” Kılıçdaroğlu said.
Close to 400 people, including politicians, academics and retired military officers, are already on trial for involvement in Ergenekon, which is named after a legendary ancestral valley believed to have been the home of the Turks. Critics say the trial's purpose is to intimidate and silence government opponents, while the government has defended the Ergenekon investigation as a move toward a stronger democracy.
Washington has accused Ricciardone, a former US ambassador to Egypt, of having "downplayed" the US administration's pro-democracy efforts in Egypt. Former Senator Sam Brownback blocked Ricciardone's appointment for several months due to his work in Egypt, which he said shows he would be too soft on the Turkish government and ignore secular Turkish opposition groups.
Ricciardone began his job late last month after US President Barack Obama resorted to a rarely used “recess appointment” in order to bypass the Senate and install him as the new ambassador to Turkey. Ricciardone still needs a confirmation vote from skeptical senators by the end of the next congressal session at the end of 2011 for his appointment to remain in effect.