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Turkey condemns state of press freedom in Europe and the U.S.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses local administrators in Ankara recently. (Pool photo by Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Service via AP)

Facing a barrage of criticism from myriad governments in the West over its arrest and detention of journalists, Turkey issued a defiant riposte over the weekend, pointing to European and U.S. hypocrisy when it comes to press freedoms.

“Countries that frequently criticize Turkey include Western democracies such as, France, Germany, England, Sweden, Spain, Netherlands and the USA,” read the statement emailed to foreign journalists over the weekend by Turkey's Directorate General of Press and Information. “So, is freedom of press unlimited in these countries? Do not the journalists, media workers, and reporters face problems in these countries?”

In what amounts to an official document of whataboutism, the Turkish statement listed a roster of supposed transgressions by various governments now scolding Turkey for its dramatic purge of state institutions and civil society in the wake of a failed coup attempt in July. It has arrested dozens of journalists and shuttered media outlets linked to a religious organization that Ankara alleges was behind the plot.

It pointed to the passage of strict anti-terror laws in countries such as France and Britain and various instances in which state authorities intimidated or prevented journalists from doing their work. These included a 2005 case filed against a German publication for its reporting on the activities of the German intelligence service during the Iraq War and the more recent smashing of hard drives containing documents leaked by American whistleblower Edward Snowden, which was carried out by Britain’s Guardian newspaper under pressure from officials.

The statement also leveled blame at the United States, gesturing to its supposed crackdown on journalists attempting to cover domestic flashpoints, such as the protests over police shootings and the recent standoff over a proposed oil pipeline near sacred Native American tribal lands.

“Canadian journalist Edward Ou, who wanted to cover the protests of the Indians and the violent intervention of the police against the protesters for the pipeline planned to be built in the state of [North] Dakota, was not allowed to enter the US on December 1,” it said, referring to an incident The Washington Post wrote about last week. The statement also added that “14 journalists,” including reporters for the German newspapers Die Welt and Bild and Turkey's state Anadolu News Agency, were “arrested and exposed to police violence” while covering the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo.

The United States and other Western nations do get rapped on the knuckles by rights groups and media watchdogs for such intimidation and mistreatment of the media. In the annual World Press Freedom Index, put out by Reporters Without Borders, the United States is ranked 41 out of 180 nations. Turkey is at 151.

The Turkish statement concluded with a rather surreal nod to 20th-century French Marxist theorist Guy Debord. It quoted from Debord’s celebrated 1967 treatise, “The Society of the Spectacle”: “The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue.”

Debord was not making an argument about the differences between sovereign states and governments, but about the ways in which mass media and its layers of images and representations supplant reality. Nevertheless, the Turkish press office carried on, arguing that “Western democracies” — with the phrase in quotation marks — “are trying to make Turkey a part of this ‘society of the spectacle’ that they established themselves yet do not observe the rules thereof.”

Such airing of grievance is not uncommon for Turkish officials, who frequently argue that the West or foreign media deliberately misunderstand their country and its politics. Ankara is also no stranger to tit-for-tat retaliation: After the United States issued travel warnings about Turkey in the wake of the July coup attempt and a spate of terrorist attacks, Turkey issued its own advisory to its citizens, warning against travel to the United States in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory in November.

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