SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary Rodham Clinton has had a tendency to stumble on the subject of human rights, and one of her more notable slips came during her first visit as secretary to Turkey, in March 2009. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has triumphed repeatedly in free and fair elections but has become increasingly intolerant of domestic opponents, complained to Ms. Clinton about a State Department human rights report that cited his attacks on Turkish media. When Ms. Clinton was asked about her response, she played down the report, apologized for Mr. Erdogan (“no politician ever likes the press criticizing them”) and claimed that “Turkey has made tremendous progress in freedom of speech and freedom of religion and human rights.”
As we pointed out at the time, just the opposite was true: Turkey was moving in the wrong direction on press and religious freedom. Since then the problem has steadily worsened. Dozens of Turkish journalists are imprisoned, including a few who have never been charged with a crime. These include Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, prominent investigative reporters critical of the government who were arrested in March and have yet to be told what laws they allegedly broke.
It was therefore heartening to hear Ms. Clinton, on another visit to Turkey last weekend, speak up forcefully for press freedom. “This is an area that I am concerned about with recent actions in Turkey,” she said when she was asked about it at a town hall meeting. “I do not think it’s necessary or in Turkey’s interest to be cracking down on journalists and bloggers and the Internet. . . . So I would, if I were in the Turkish government . . . be standing up for freedom of expression and freedom of journalism and freedom of bloggers and freedom of the Internet.”
Ms. Clinton’s comments, which drew grateful applause from her audience, were particularly significant because the Obama administration is engaged with Turkey on a host of sensitive issues. The two governments are trying to cooperate on Libya, Syria, Iran, Israeli-Palestinian relations and U.S. plans for European missile defense. In almost every instance, the United States needs Turkey’s help. Given Mr. Erdogan’s prickliness, it would be easy to conclude that the issue of media freedom should be set aside or discussed only in private.
Instead Ms. Clinton demonstrated that it is possible for a secretary of state to speak frankly and publicly about human rights while still doing business with an important government. To be sure, gratuitous scoldings of allies can be counterproductive, but public statements on matters such as press freedom are critical, because they send a message to the broader society about U.S. values and often encourage citizens to speak up.
“I’ve raised this before. I will certainly be raising it again,” Ms. Clinton said of the Turkish media issue. “But let me just say that I think it’s very important for citizens like yourself to raise it.” If Turkey’s beleaguered journalists get a little more public support in coming months — and we bet they will — they will have the secretary of state to thank.