Slipping in Turkey

Monday, November 23, 2009

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN has been the protagonist of an epic liberalization of politics in Turkey. The victory of his mildly Islamist AK Party in a 2002 general election was itself a breakthrough; even more so was his government's defeat of repeated attempts by the military and courts to remove it from power. Mr. Erdogan is pushing through historic reforms of Turkey's treatment of its Kurdish minority and recently took a major step toward opening the country's border with Armenia.

Yet, as his tenure lengthens, it is becoming evident that Mr. Erdogan's commitment to democratic principles and Western values is far from complete. As Turkey's prospects of joining the European Union have dimmed, the government's foreign policy has taken a nasty turn: Shrill denunciations of Israel have been accompanied by increasing coziness with the criminal rulers of Iran, Syria and Sudan. Mr. Erdogan recently declared that Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes in Darfur, was welcome in Turkey because "a Muslim can never commit genocide."

Even more concerning is Mr. Erdogan's treatment of the Turkish media. Frustrated by hostility toward his government by media conglomerates that formed part of Turkey's traditional secular establishment, the prime minister and his allies have resorted to increasingly heavy-handed measures. Two years ago a forced sale of the country's second-biggest newspaper placed it in the hands of a company headed by Mr. Erdogan's son-in-law. Once critical, it is now predictably pro-government.

Now the government is threatening to destroy Turkey's largest media company, Dogan Yayin. The conglomerate, which controls seven newspapers, 28 magazines and three television channels -- including Turkey's version of CNN -- has been hit with an escalating series of tax bills based on questionable audits of past filings. The latest one, delivered in September, now stands at some $3.3 billion -- a sum greater than the value of Dogan Yayin and its parent company.

Faced with sharp criticism by the European Union, Mr. Erdogan and his foreign minister have insisted that the tax bills are a "technical matter"; in one interview the prime minister compared them to the tax case brought against gangster Al Capone. The parallel was unintentionally revealing. Mr. Erdogan's real problem is not with the company's supposed tax evasion but with its tough reporting on his government -- beginning with reports about an Islamic charity that may have illegally funneled money to his party.

Turkish journalists say that a pall of fear has fallen across their business. Editors practice self-censorship. Many journalists are believed to be among the more than 100,000 people whose phones have been tapped by the government in recent years. Some, including the chief executive of Dogan Yayin, have been swept up in a murky investigation of alleged coup plotting.

Mr. Erdogan and his party were once seen by many in Washington as a model for how pious Muslims could practice democratic politics. That image is rapidly darkening. If it is not to be extinguished, Mr. Erdogan must stop coddling Muslim dictators -- and stop following their practice of silencing domestic opposition.

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