Commentary Magazine


Topic: press freedom

Time to Speak Out on Turkey Media Bans

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on press freedom is now more than a decade old. The story is well-known: Upon taking office, he surreptitiously replaced all the technocrats at Turkey’s banking board with political hacks, all of whom had an Islamic banking background. He then used this board and others to levy exorbitant and arbitrary tax liens sometimes amounting to billions of dollars against his political enemies and any newspaper which reported critically about him.

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Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on press freedom is now more than a decade old. The story is well-known: Upon taking office, he surreptitiously replaced all the technocrats at Turkey’s banking board with political hacks, all of whom had an Islamic banking background. He then used this board and others to levy exorbitant and arbitrary tax liens sometimes amounting to billions of dollars against his political enemies and any newspaper which reported critically about him.

While media watchdogs have chronicled Erdoğan’s reign of terror against journalists, famously labeling Turkey the “world’s biggest prison for journalists,” just as important to Erdoğan’s success has been his ability to co-opt journalists. Meeting with veteran Turkish journalists in Istanbul this past summer, most estimated that only five percent of Turkish journalists at most are professional; some within the newer generation of journalists have become multimillionaires simply because they parrot Erdoğan’s line and paint flattering portraits of his sublime wisdom.

Many of the authentic journalists who remain work at the Turkish daily Hürriyet. Certainly, that paper still self-censors and it is also home to some columnists who frequently toe the government line, but it still is willing to push the envelope in a way so many other Turkish outlets will not. One recent bold case was that of reporter Zeynep Gürcanlı who, after Erdoğan’s regime decreed no one should report on the massive corruption scandal involving former ministers and Erdoğan associates, compiled this list of ten topics on which the government has banned Turkish journalists from reporting. Her list is well worth reading.

Hürriyet soon followed suit with this declaration decrying the bans. Several newspapers subsequently issued statements that they would ignore the ban, a bold move which can result in fines, prison, or worse.

Interestingly, one newspaper that has apparently decided to go along with Erdoğan’s ban is Sabah. This does not surprise: That newspaper, once mildly critical of Erdoğan, was seized by the Turkish government and transferred to Erdoğan’s son-in-law. What makes Sabah’s refusal more meaningful, however, is that when President Obama hosted Erdoğan at the White House last year, Obama chose Sabah of all newspapers in order to laud Erdoğan’s Turkey. Its sycophantic behavior to Erdoğan was already well known, as was Hürriyet’s willingness to resist. To be fair to Obama, it is doubtful he personally knew about Sabah’s baggage. But certainly the Turkey desk at the National Security Council did, as would all the Turkey hands at the State Department, at the American Embassy in Ankara, and the American consulate in Istanbul. That the United States has so consistently turned a blind eye to the contraction of rights and freedoms in Turkey is a poor reflection of a litany of U.S. ambassadors in Turkey, with the clear exception of Eric Edelman, who regularly stood up and spoke out in favor of democracy and liberty and was not willing to paper over or rationalize Erdoğan’s abuse of power.

Mistakes happen, but they can be corrected. Once upon the time the White House valued moral clarity. How telling it is that as some Turkish journalists risk life and limb to expose the truth, Obama and so many handling Turkey affairs in the State Department remain as silent publicly on the subjects Turkey bans as Erdoğan’s in-pocket, bought-and-paid-for journalists.

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Who’s Really Silencing Whom in Israel?

There’s been a lot written recently about how Israel’s “right-wing” government is “silencing” the leftist opposition. So it’s worth noting that for all the talk of the silenced left, the only media outlet Israel’s parliament has actually tried to silence–repeatedly–just happens to be the only major Hebrew-language media organ representing the center-right, as well as the only one that enthusiastically supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And the votes that allowed the latest version of this undemocratic legislation to pass its preliminary Knesset reading today came not from the “anti-democratic” right, but primarily from Israel’s self-proclaimed champions of democracy on the left.

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There’s been a lot written recently about how Israel’s “right-wing” government is “silencing” the leftist opposition. So it’s worth noting that for all the talk of the silenced left, the only media outlet Israel’s parliament has actually tried to silence–repeatedly–just happens to be the only major Hebrew-language media organ representing the center-right, as well as the only one that enthusiastically supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And the votes that allowed the latest version of this undemocratic legislation to pass its preliminary Knesset reading today came not from the “anti-democratic” right, but primarily from Israel’s self-proclaimed champions of democracy on the left.

To be clear, the bill won’t become law. Like other undemocratic bills proposed by irresponsible Knesset members in recent years, it will be quietly killed in committee by wiser heads after having gotten its sponsors the media attention they craved. But nobody on the “anti-democratic” right has ever tried to pass legislation shutting down left-wing papers like Haaretz or Yedioth Ahronoth; only on the “democratic” left is silencing newspapers you don’t like considered acceptable behavior.

The bill to shutter Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom is just a particularly crude example of a broader problem: The Israeli left is all too fond of trying to silence others. And the false claim that it is really the one being silenced is one of its favorite tactics for doing so: After all, an “anti-democratic” government doesn’t deserve to have its views heard by the international community.

Noah Efron, himself a self-proclaimed leftist, dissected the absurdity of the left’s silencing claim in a thoughtful Haaretz piece in September. Left-wing newspapers and websites still publish, left-wing academics still lecture, left-wing NGOs still disseminate material, left-wing activists still demonstrate, and the specific individuals who were allegedly silenced actually “received hours of airtime and hundreds of column inches,” he wrote.

“We haven’t been silenced. We’ve just failed to make our case,” Efron concluded. “The answer is not to convince readers of the New York Times that Israel is no longer a democracy. The answer is to accept that Israel is a democracy, and that democracy demands that we speak to our fellow citizens … that we persuade them rather than dismiss them.”

But the claim of silencing isn’t just an excuse for left-wing failures; it’s also an effective tactic for ensuring that the non-left won’t be heard. The Israel Hayom bill is instructive because it exposes this desire to silence others, something the left usually tries to conceal.

The first attempt to shutter the paper was an unsubtle bill making it illegal for non-Israelis to own Israeli newspapers–a restriction chosen because it applied to one paper only. Its hypocrisy was underscored by the fact that the left evinced no objection whatsoever when another American tycoon rescued the left-wing Channel 10 television by becoming its majority shareholder.

The current bill, which aims to destroy Israel Hayom’s business model, is equally unsubtle. It would outlaw freebie papers–but only if they’re successful. Freebies that don’t compete with the mainstream media are fine, but any freebie that becomes one of the four highest-circulation papers would have to start charging at least 70 percent of what the cheapest of the other three charges. Needless to say, only one Israeli freebie makes the top four.

Leftists justify this undemocratic bill by claiming Israel Hayom isn’t a real paper, but a Netanyahu mouthpiece. Personally, I agree that the paper’s coverage of Netanyahu is excessively fawning–but not more so than, say, Haaretz’s coverage of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas or the New York Times’s coverage of Barack Obama. So should the Knesset ban Haaretz, too? Indeed, Haaretz and Yedioth unabashedly use their editorial freedom to support left-wing politicians; somehow, only editorial support for a center-right politician is illegitimate.

It’s also worth noting that on issues other than Netanyahu, Israel Hayom’s veteran journalists–most of whom previously reported for left-wing media outlets–actually provide interesting coverage of issues the other major media outlets prefer to ignore, like Palestinian groups’ deliberate instigation of the recent rioting in Jerusalem or the growing integrationist trend among Israel’s Christian Arabs.

This, I suspect, is the real reason why leftists loathe it. But admitting that they’d rather deprive the public of information that calls their political program into question wouldn’t sound any better than admitting they’ve failed to convince a majority of Israelis of this program’s wisdom. Much better to dismiss Israel Hayom as a mere propaganda organ and try to shut it down–all while loudly proclaiming that they are really the ones being silenced.

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Criticism to Become Crime in Turkey

I have written here many times about Turkey and its war on the media and free speech. Turkey is already “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. President Erdoğan has, in recent months, been on the war path since Turks used online news portals and social media to report on and discuss tapes which suggest that he and his family had embezzled money to the tune of over one billion dollars. Alas, with Erdoğan secure in the presidency and the opposition largely cowed into submission, Erdoğan is now taking his campaign against media and free thought to the next level. As “the Radical Democrat,” a blog which follows press freedom in Turkey closely and often breaks news about new and real threats to free expression in that country, writes:

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I have written here many times about Turkey and its war on the media and free speech. Turkey is already “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. President Erdoğan has, in recent months, been on the war path since Turks used online news portals and social media to report on and discuss tapes which suggest that he and his family had embezzled money to the tune of over one billion dollars. Alas, with Erdoğan secure in the presidency and the opposition largely cowed into submission, Erdoğan is now taking his campaign against media and free thought to the next level. As “the Radical Democrat,” a blog which follows press freedom in Turkey closely and often breaks news about new and real threats to free expression in that country, writes:

Draconian internet laws in Turkey are deepening yet once again with a new reform package that will bring by new measures against freedom of speech in Turkey. Previously, the government has already tried to silence masses through censorship measures, surveillance of netizens, blocking access to web sites, or even raids on online news portals’ headquarters. The most recent “development” on the laws against online free speech is the most recent law draft that foresees up to 5 years of imprisonment for tweeps that criticize the government online.

The issue goes beyond simply social media or print criticism, but rather will extend to slogans during street protests:

The new bill’s scope is not limited to digital public spaces but also makes opposition movements’ visibility on streets problematic. The slogans that have been adopted by critical groups on street protests had already drawn many frowning faces so far, and with the new bill they will be considered a crime. New law also breaches the diplomatic immunity of politicians, allowing them to be put on trial as well, in case of threats against public-officers, soldiers, police, governors etc. The prison sentence will possibly go up to 5 years depending on the intensity of the “criminal activity.”

To make matters worse, the new law restricts the ability of lawyers to defend those accused of criticizing the government. Welcome to the new Turkey, a country intent on falling below even Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain in press freedom rankings.

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Turkey’s Jihad Against Online News Portals

In 2002, Reporters without Frontiers ranked Turkey 99th in the world in terms of press freedom. That was a poor showing for a country aspiring to join the European Union, but it still placed Turkey well above countries like Burma, Russia, Ethiopia, and Iraq. No longer. Over his more than decade-long premiership, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used a number of tools to constrain press freedom.

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In 2002, Reporters without Frontiers ranked Turkey 99th in the world in terms of press freedom. That was a poor showing for a country aspiring to join the European Union, but it still placed Turkey well above countries like Burma, Russia, Ethiopia, and Iraq. No longer. Over his more than decade-long premiership, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used a number of tools to constrain press freedom.

After replacing technocrats on Turkey’s banking and tax boards with political loyalists, Erdoğan levelled ever-increasing tax liens against media organizations that criticized him or his agenda. If his targets did not forfeit their media outlets, Erdoğan would confiscate them. While, in theory, these media companies would come up for auction, Erdoğan would ensure that the only permissible bidders would be loyalists to his political party and, preferably, members of his own family.

Erdoğan would simultaneously employ other strategies as well. Turkey imprisons more journalists than Iran and China. It harasses female journalists and has recently begun targeting journalists working for foreign outlets as well. (I have not been immune; after I criticized Turkish corruption, Erdoğan aide Cuneyd Zapsu and (now disgraced and fired) EU Minister Egemen Bağış sued me in a Turkish court). He targeted authors to confiscate unpublished manuscripts; Turkey now prosecutes thought-crime rather than actual crime.

Now, alas, Turkey is no longer willing to simply go after traditional outlets. While Erdoğan’s jihad against social media is long standing, Erdoğan increasingly seeks to control what can be published online. Quite simply, the Internet—and, more broadly, free discourse—frustrates Erdoğan, who would much rather crush dissent than accept the accountability and transparency a free media encourages or address the merits of his opponents’ arguments. As journalists have moved to online outlets to escape Erdoğan’s authoritarian ambitions, the number of Turkish news portals has exploded online.

It is these that Erdoğan now targets. According to “the radical democrat,” a Turkish blog which closely follows free speech, Internet freedom, and individual liberty issues in Turkey:

Today, surprisingly access to Karsi‘s newsportal online was blocked… The portal continues to use a proxy newsportal for now “uncensored news” (sansursuz haber) until it also gets subjected to same treatment. Another surprise news of the day is that newly established “Gri Hat” (Grey Line) newsportal is also taken to court and blocking access is declared, for potential to distribute critical news material which has published the corruption records on the newsportal. Gri Hat was established not more than a month ago by unemployed/fired journalists and it was going to leak more news pieces regarding all kinds of corruption… If alternative/opposed news portals continue getting raided or subjected to threats and give in to such pressure, the future of democracy hangs on spikes in Turkey.

Turkey was never a beacon of freedom. But with Erdoğan’s latest move against Internet portals, it seems determined to fall further in international press freedom rankings, below even Iran, Belarus, and China.

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Journalists to Obama: Let Us Do Our Jobs

For a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, outgoing White House press secretary Jay Carney sat for the magazine’s weekly interview feature. Since the American mainstream press can never stop talking about itself, the tough line of questioning of the interview concerned the Obama administration’s infamous war on leakers and shameless spying not only on journalists but on their parents. Carney had a revealing response.

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For a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, outgoing White House press secretary Jay Carney sat for the magazine’s weekly interview feature. Since the American mainstream press can never stop talking about itself, the tough line of questioning of the interview concerned the Obama administration’s infamous war on leakers and shameless spying not only on journalists but on their parents. Carney had a revealing response.

Here’s the exchange:

One serious accusation that has come up throughout your tenure is that this is an Orwellian administration, the most secretive ever. I know — because I covered them — that this was said of Clinton and Bush, and it will probably be said of the next White House. I think a little perspective is useful. What I really reject — and would have rejected as a reporter covering this place — is this notion that whether a reporter is successfully doing his job depends on information he is being handed through the front door from the White House.

But won’t all these leak investigations produce a chilling effect? Len Downie [the former Washington Post editor] sat in this office as he was preparing a report about how we were producing a chilling effect, and I was able to take a copy of The Post and drop it on the table and point to yet another unbelievable national security leak. Reporters are still able to get stories and information that the administration clearly does not want them to have.

Carney has a point that such accusations are leveled at each administration. But notice his answer to the second question there. His rebuttal to the press taking offense at his boss’s attempts to prevent them from accessing information is that, hey, some stories are still getting through. In other words, the Obama administration’s information suppression isn’t perfect, and therefore isn’t objectionable. Come back to him when he’s put you completely out of business, and maybe you’ll have a point.

It’s kind of an amazing answer when you think about it. But it’s also completely characteristic of this administration. Carney was a journalist. And like most journalists, he went to work for President Obama. (That’s an exaggeration: most journalists may have wanted a job doing officially what they were doing unofficially–spinning shamelessly for Obama–but only a select couple dozen got the opportunity to fulfill their dream of silencing a free press and spouting robotic talking points.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Carney’s response–that sometimes news is occasionally produced despite Obama’s best efforts–has not convinced journalism groups. Via George Washington Professor Jonathan Turley, 38 such groups have sent Obama a joint letter of protest. They write:

You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.

Turley comments:

Once again, the White House has a virtually army of commenters and blog surfers who continually deflect such criticism by referring to how much worse the Republicans are or simply changing the subject. However, the mounting attacks on civil liberties by this Administration has gutted the foundational principles of the Democratic party and virtually destroyed the American civil liberties movement. What is left the power of personality over principle. However, this will not our last president. When he leaves, he will leave little in his wake beyond hypocrisy for those who have remained silent in the face of the abuses. It is the victory of the “blue state/red state” construct that maintain the duopoly of the two parties. Each party excuses its failures by referring to the other as the worst of two evils. For years, Democrats and liberals have supported Obama as he has attacked the defining values that were once the Democratic party. The fact that this letter is even necessary is a shocking statement on the state of American press freedom.

Turley makes an important point, not only about press freedom itself but by the partisan nature of excuse-making. We often play the game of “what if a Republican did this?” Well, barring an American metamorphosis into a one-party state, a Republican will at some point be in that position. Obama will have set a precedent in his at times ridiculously obsessive control of the news, and the Democrats will have not only enabled or defended it, but the left-leaning journalists among them will have been lining up for jobs to help them do so.

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Turkey to Take Press Crackdown to New Level?

When diplomats once called Turkey a model, they meant as a majority Muslim state that embraced democracy. Here is Hillary Clinton, for example, finding the same sort of hope in Turkey’s Islamist regime she once saw in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Bush administration, for its part, wasn’t any better, with the likes of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even the president himself diminishing democracy by placing the adjective Islamic in front of it. That has nothing to do with the term Islamic; putting any modifier in front of democracy—Christian, Jewish, socialist, revolutionary, or any other adjective—necessarily constrains the democracy itself.

Alas, all the blind rhetoric of Turkey’s democracy on the part of American politicians—and here a special spotlight should be on the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus—simply gave Turkey cover to continue its crackdown.

Turkey has, accordingly, plummeted in press freedom. But simply confiscating opponents’ newspapers is no longer enough for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Putin. As protestors rallied against him, he condemned and even banned Twitter. YouTube remains censored despite a court order. Earlier this weekend, Lütfi Elvan, Turkey’s minister of communications, proposed removing Turkey from the world wide web, and replacing the “www” with a “ttt,” in effect, a Turkish intranet. Even though his statement was made before numerous journalists, the Turkish government is now walking back the proposal. Still, Elvan’s sin appears to be in the timing of his comments rather than in their content. Make no mistake: Even considering such a ludicrous plan puts Turkey firmly in a club dominated by the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea.

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When diplomats once called Turkey a model, they meant as a majority Muslim state that embraced democracy. Here is Hillary Clinton, for example, finding the same sort of hope in Turkey’s Islamist regime she once saw in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Bush administration, for its part, wasn’t any better, with the likes of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even the president himself diminishing democracy by placing the adjective Islamic in front of it. That has nothing to do with the term Islamic; putting any modifier in front of democracy—Christian, Jewish, socialist, revolutionary, or any other adjective—necessarily constrains the democracy itself.

Alas, all the blind rhetoric of Turkey’s democracy on the part of American politicians—and here a special spotlight should be on the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus—simply gave Turkey cover to continue its crackdown.

Turkey has, accordingly, plummeted in press freedom. But simply confiscating opponents’ newspapers is no longer enough for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Putin. As protestors rallied against him, he condemned and even banned Twitter. YouTube remains censored despite a court order. Earlier this weekend, Lütfi Elvan, Turkey’s minister of communications, proposed removing Turkey from the world wide web, and replacing the “www” with a “ttt,” in effect, a Turkish intranet. Even though his statement was made before numerous journalists, the Turkish government is now walking back the proposal. Still, Elvan’s sin appears to be in the timing of his comments rather than in their content. Make no mistake: Even considering such a ludicrous plan puts Turkey firmly in a club dominated by the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea.

Erdoğan’s record reinforces the fact that Turkey belongs nowhere near Europe. Liberal Turks will never again be in the majority in their country, and Erdoğan believes that so long as his Anatolian constituency blindly supports him, he can be the sultan in reality that he always was in spirit. Turks and Kurds deserve better, but until and unless they stand up more forcefully for their rights or until Turkey fractures–which, with current demographic trends and the Kurdish national resurgence Turkey eventually will–liberal Turks will never again know freedom in their own country.

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Press Freedom Index Dose of Reality

Reporters Without Borders today released its newest press freedom index. While its website is still a bit quirky—they must have modeled themselves after Healthcare.gov—and so it’s difficult to get the simple list of rankings, there are some notable findings.

First, despite all the hope for change, a dispassionate look at the Iranian press found that there had been no change in Iranian press freedom under new president Hassan Rouhani. Iran still remains in the basement; journalists are still imprisoned or killed; and there is no right to free speech.

Turkey, whose leader President Barack Obama has described as one of his most-trusted foreign friends, remains an embarrassment, ranking 154th in terms of press freedom. That puts Turkey behind Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia, and on par with Belarus. Frank Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, continues to support Turkey’s European Union membership. Then again, Ricciardone once suggested Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was so popular, he could win elections in the United States and, according to declassified documents, Ricciardone once led the drive to normalize relations with that noted moderate and reformer, Saddam Hussein, so perhaps his cheerleading for dictators should be taken with a grain of salt.

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Reporters Without Borders today released its newest press freedom index. While its website is still a bit quirky—they must have modeled themselves after Healthcare.gov—and so it’s difficult to get the simple list of rankings, there are some notable findings.

First, despite all the hope for change, a dispassionate look at the Iranian press found that there had been no change in Iranian press freedom under new president Hassan Rouhani. Iran still remains in the basement; journalists are still imprisoned or killed; and there is no right to free speech.

Turkey, whose leader President Barack Obama has described as one of his most-trusted foreign friends, remains an embarrassment, ranking 154th in terms of press freedom. That puts Turkey behind Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia, and on par with Belarus. Frank Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, continues to support Turkey’s European Union membership. Then again, Ricciardone once suggested Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was so popular, he could win elections in the United States and, according to declassified documents, Ricciardone once led the drive to normalize relations with that noted moderate and reformer, Saddam Hussein, so perhaps his cheerleading for dictators should be taken with a grain of salt.

Israel shot up in the rankings, after Reporters Without Borders penalized it last year for killing two Hamas operatives who were moonlighting as reporters. The NGO knocked several points off both the United States and the United Kingdom for their prosecution of whistle blowers, though there is a difference between prosecuting government officials who violated their oath to protect the secrecy of material versus targeting journalists who were simply doing their job. (Granted, the United States did a little of both.) Eritrea remained in the basement, behind even North Korea, which seems curious at best.

What does make interesting reading is to go down the list and compare the press freedom rankings of those countries the Obama administration coddles versus those countries Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama criticize; for example, juxtaposing China and Taiwan, or Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Here, it seems that the key to gaining praise from the White House is to imprison journalists, while granting citizens freedom and liberty seems a sure-fire means to find yourself in the White House’s diplomatic cross hairs. Perhaps the press freedom rankings can be a wakeup call to Obama and Kerry about how they judge and treat allies.

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Press Freedom and the New Whataboutism

One of the more entertaining adornments to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to return Russia to some form of imperial influence has been his routine indulging in “whataboutism,” the practice of attempting to highlight the West’s hypocrisy when criticizing Moscow. In the Soviet era, it had a distinct purpose: because the Soviets wanted to spread worldwide ideological revolution, they felt obligated to challenge any assertion or evidence that freedom was better than totalitarianism.

Nowadays, because Putin believes in nothing but wealth and power, Russian whataboutism has lost some of its edge. China, too, has dabbled in its own whataboutism in recent years, encouraging the mention of Western freedom of the press to be qualified with a snide “so-called” preceding it. The two occasionally converge, however, with a helping hand from the West. Such is the case with this ominous-sounding media column from the New York Times’s David Carr. Headlined “Where Freedom of the Press Is Muffled,” Carr wants to talk about the plight of journalists in China–and the Anglosphere:

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One of the more entertaining adornments to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to return Russia to some form of imperial influence has been his routine indulging in “whataboutism,” the practice of attempting to highlight the West’s hypocrisy when criticizing Moscow. In the Soviet era, it had a distinct purpose: because the Soviets wanted to spread worldwide ideological revolution, they felt obligated to challenge any assertion or evidence that freedom was better than totalitarianism.

Nowadays, because Putin believes in nothing but wealth and power, Russian whataboutism has lost some of its edge. China, too, has dabbled in its own whataboutism in recent years, encouraging the mention of Western freedom of the press to be qualified with a snide “so-called” preceding it. The two occasionally converge, however, with a helping hand from the West. Such is the case with this ominous-sounding media column from the New York Times’s David Carr. Headlined “Where Freedom of the Press Is Muffled,” Carr wants to talk about the plight of journalists in China–and the Anglosphere:

In China on Thursday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke plainly about the role of a free press in a democratic society. …

He was speaking against the backdrop of China’s restrictive policies on reporting by foreign news organizations; the Chinese government has so far declined to renew the visas of nearly two dozen reporters from The New York Times and Bloomberg News as a consequence of their coverage, raising the possibility that they could be forced to leave China at the end of the year.

It was the first time a high-ranking United States official had spoken publicly about the professional plight of journalists seeking to fully report on China.

While it was heartening to see the White House at the forefront of the effort to ensure an unfettered press, government officials in Britain, a supposedly advanced democracy and the United States’ closest ally, might do well to consider Mr. Biden’s words. (Some of his colleagues in the Justice Department, which has ferociously prosecuted leakers, might take heed as well, but that’s a matter for a different day.)

In one fell swoop, Carr seemed to be engaged in an ever-escalating bout of whataboutism against himself. The Chinese are restricting freedom of the press, Carr says. Well what about Britain, responds Carr. Don’t forget the United States, retorts Carr. (The game ends there; in whataboutism, American hypocrisy is always the winning hand.)

But it’s not as though Carr wasn’t onto something. Britain and the Obama administration have both recently behaved in ways inimical to true press freedom, and it is indeed more offensive for this to happen in America, which has the First Amendment, notwithstanding Carr’s disdainful swipe at Britain being a “supposedly advanced democracy.”

Nonetheless, the treatment of journalists, even Western journalists, in China is of course far worse than in the West. And it may be heading to a crisis point. Isaac Stone Fish has a comprehensive write-up of the ongoing saga at Foreign Policy, detailing the increased attempts at censoring the more active foreign bureaus of the Times and Bloomberg. The latter is even embroiled in its own scandal amid accusations of self-censorship to keep the Chinese government happy. The whole article is worth reading, but the upshot is that it’s not out of the question that China would expel the bureaus:

If Beijing actually does plan to expel both bureaus it would constitute the government’s biggest move against foreign reporters at least since the upheaval following the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Evan Osnos, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a long-time China correspondent, called this recent move “the Chinese government’s most dramatic attempt to insulate itself from scrutiny in the thirty-five years since China began opening to the world.” Paul Mooney, a longtime China-based chronicler of that country’s human rights abuses, had his visa rejected in early November, in another sign of tightening for foreign correspondents in China. Reuters, Bloomberg, and the New York Times “don’t have the ability to influence the Chinese government,” said Mooney. “I think we really need to have some kind of action. Maybe against media executives in China, or officials — to give the message that this is not acceptable.”

What authoritarian regimes are finding out is that in the age of a democratized Web, which creates far more competition for stories among the press, and social media, which enables the citizens in many cases to turn the surveillance state against itself, the traditional avenues of influencing public opinion are subject to diminishing returns. All this means that state-run media are increasingly ineffective.

How to better control the conversation, in that environment? The Chinese response has been to elbow out the foreign press, if they don’t bow to bullying. The Russian response was somewhat novel. Putin dissolved the state news agency in favor of the creation of what is essentially a public-relations firm, dropping the pretense entirely. Putin has always been obsessed with image, but even this is a bit much–though more honest, I suppose, in its own twisted way.

Yet neither should be brushed off lightly. Authoritarian regimes that act like they have even more to hide probably do–or will in the near future.

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The Leak Inquisition and Press Freedom

The United States has a right to protect secrets. Though President Obama often speaks as if the West is not still locked in a life-and-death struggle with Islamist terrorists, the security needs of this nation are still considerable and require discretion on the part of those entrusted with them. But even those who honor the notion that the public does not need to know every bit of classified information in the possession of the government should be alarmed at the willingness of the administration to act as if leaking is the primary threat to the rule of law. The alarming nature of the Department of Justice’s jihad against the press was made all too clear early this year when news of the government’s spying on Associated Press reporters and Fox News correspondent James Rosen was revealed. But if a federal appellate court ruling issued last week stands, the problem may be far worse than we thought.

On Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia decided that New York Times reporter James Risen must testify in the trial of a former CIA official accused of leaking information that was allegedly used to help write a 2006 book. Doing so would not just violate Risen’s pledge not to reveal his sources but would constitute a major infringement of press freedom that could have serious consequences for the future of American democracy. While the right to shield sources is not absolute, by ruling in this manner, the Fourth Circuit could be establishing a precedent that will make it impossible not just to pursue investigative journalism, which relies on confidential sources, but for news gathering organizations to conduct any sort of scrutiny of the intelligence and defense establishment. Though this ruling has not gotten a fraction of the coverage accorded to the AP and Rosen scandals, it is potentially more far-reaching in its scope. For once, I agree with the Times editorial column which rightly says today that this ruling should be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The United States has a right to protect secrets. Though President Obama often speaks as if the West is not still locked in a life-and-death struggle with Islamist terrorists, the security needs of this nation are still considerable and require discretion on the part of those entrusted with them. But even those who honor the notion that the public does not need to know every bit of classified information in the possession of the government should be alarmed at the willingness of the administration to act as if leaking is the primary threat to the rule of law. The alarming nature of the Department of Justice’s jihad against the press was made all too clear early this year when news of the government’s spying on Associated Press reporters and Fox News correspondent James Rosen was revealed. But if a federal appellate court ruling issued last week stands, the problem may be far worse than we thought.

On Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia decided that New York Times reporter James Risen must testify in the trial of a former CIA official accused of leaking information that was allegedly used to help write a 2006 book. Doing so would not just violate Risen’s pledge not to reveal his sources but would constitute a major infringement of press freedom that could have serious consequences for the future of American democracy. While the right to shield sources is not absolute, by ruling in this manner, the Fourth Circuit could be establishing a precedent that will make it impossible not just to pursue investigative journalism, which relies on confidential sources, but for news gathering organizations to conduct any sort of scrutiny of the intelligence and defense establishment. Though this ruling has not gotten a fraction of the coverage accorded to the AP and Rosen scandals, it is potentially more far-reaching in its scope. For once, I agree with the Times editorial column which rightly says today that this ruling should be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Compelling Risen to testify in what is, after all, a criminal trial, may not seem unreasonable to those who are justifiably angry about the way classified information seems to be flowing from the government via WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, and countless other examples of leaking, especially those with a political axe to grind. But while prosecuting leakers is justifiable, the government’s effort to criminalize journalism is not.

Attorney General Eric Holder was widely and rightly criticized for the Department of Justice’s outrageous description of Rosen as a “co-conspirator” along with a government employee in the crime of disclosing classified information. Journalists are not above the law, but in order to do their jobs they must have the right to speak to government officials and not be treated as felons for normal interactions with sources. Since the furor over DOJ’s wrongful conduct in the Rosen case, Holder has issued guidelines for dealing with the press to prosecutors that will supposedly ensure that this sort of unjustified snooping won’t be repeated. But the Fourth Circuit has seemingly given a seal of approval to prosecutorial abuses that are just as bad as the conduct Holder sought to abolish.

A government that makes it next to impossible for investigative journalism to thrive is not one that has a thriving free press. If Holder and his boss President Obama are truly serious about press freedom and putting this scandal to rest, they will save the high court the trouble of overruling the Fourth Circuit, and quash Risen’s subpoena immediately. Government secrets are important, but not more important than preserving the First Amendment.

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Could Turkey Fall Below Iran in Press Freedom?

Even before the current protests, Turkey was already “the world’s largest prison for journalists,” its press freedom ranking had plummeted, falling below even Russia, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and Burma. Since the protests erupted, however, Turkish authorities have grown increasingly aggressive toward the press. Not only have foreign journalists been attacked, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has turned his animus toward twitter, declaring the 140-character social network site to be “a menace to society.”

While I’ve written before about how Erdoğan has been confiscating television stations and media companies—including sending his Brownshirts to do the job as he stood next to President Obama in the Rose Garden last month—he appears intent to actually accelerate efforts to close any media companies that dare report critically about him, his increasingly unstable personality, or the brutal crackdown that Erdoğan appears ready to make the new normal.

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Even before the current protests, Turkey was already “the world’s largest prison for journalists,” its press freedom ranking had plummeted, falling below even Russia, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and Burma. Since the protests erupted, however, Turkish authorities have grown increasingly aggressive toward the press. Not only have foreign journalists been attacked, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has turned his animus toward twitter, declaring the 140-character social network site to be “a menace to society.”

While I’ve written before about how Erdoğan has been confiscating television stations and media companies—including sending his Brownshirts to do the job as he stood next to President Obama in the Rose Garden last month—he appears intent to actually accelerate efforts to close any media companies that dare report critically about him, his increasingly unstable personality, or the brutal crackdown that Erdoğan appears ready to make the new normal.

He has, for example, used the media commission he controls to level outrageous fines against channels which reported events in Taksim Square or elsewhere as they were occurring. No longer is the sultan content to simply limit his jihad to Bart Simpson. The logic for the government fines was that the television channels showed violence which could harm children. The irony, of course, is that the violence was occurring on the street outside their homes, and children were breathing the gas that Erdoğan ordered fired. Fortunately, for those kids, Turkey has nearly exhausted its supply of tear gas, having fired well over 120,000 canisters, although the Turkish government has issued an emergency tender for 100,000 new gas canisters.

Now Turkish diplomats will insist that Turkey has a free press, and that is true so long as freedom is defined as being free to report all the news that Erdoğan approves and nothing more.

The question now, of course, is whether it is possible for Erdoğan to drive Turkey even lower in international press freedom rankings. It seems the answer is, unfortunately, yes. It is quite possible that, in the coming year, Turkey could find itself ranked below even Belarus, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Turkey will likely remain above Iran… for now. But after a few more years of Erdoğan, who knows? Erdoğan, however, will not care. His priority—it should be clear—is fealty to the sultan, not freedom or democracy.

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Newseum and Freedom House Smear Israel

Freedom House released its annual report on press freedom throughout the world today at an event sponsored by the Newseum in Washington. But along with the usual and appropriate condemnations of dictatorships and totalitarian states, the group decided to slam the one democracy in the Middle East as well as one of the few states in the region where press freedom actually exists: Israel.

Karin Karleklar, the organization’s project direct for monitoring press freedom, told an audience at the Newseum streamed live over the Internet this morning that Israel’s status was being downgraded from “free” to “partly free.” This is astonishing by itself, but the bizarre nature of this judgment is only made clear when one hears the reasons. Two of the reasons stated by Karleklar—the indictment of a journalist for possessing stolen classified materials and the problems that one television station has had in getting its license renewed—are hardly violations of freedom but do speak to issues that could be misinterpreted as tyrannical if they were discussing a country where there wasn’t a vibrant free press. But the third is so absurd as to call into question not merely the judgment but the impartiality of the entire report.

The report claims that the appearance on the scene of Israel Hayom, a relatively new Israeli newspaper, is a threat to press freedom because it is a success that has hurt the business prospects of its competitors. No, you didn’t misread that sentence. Freedom House is taking the position that the fact that Israel Hayom has claimed an impressive share of the hyper-competitive newspaper market is undermining the freedom of the press. The justification for this ridiculous claim is that Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul and well-known contributor to Republican candidates, has “subsidized” the paper and that its editorial line favors Prime Minister Netanyahu. The paper, which is distributed free of charge, is now the most-read paper in Israel, a state of affairs which Freedom House not unreasonably connects to the demise of Maariv, a longtime mainstay of the Hebrew daily press. But the question readers of this report have to ask is what in the name of Joseph Pulitzer does the ability of Adelson’s paper to succeed where many other print papers are failing have to do with freedom of the press?

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Freedom House released its annual report on press freedom throughout the world today at an event sponsored by the Newseum in Washington. But along with the usual and appropriate condemnations of dictatorships and totalitarian states, the group decided to slam the one democracy in the Middle East as well as one of the few states in the region where press freedom actually exists: Israel.

Karin Karleklar, the organization’s project direct for monitoring press freedom, told an audience at the Newseum streamed live over the Internet this morning that Israel’s status was being downgraded from “free” to “partly free.” This is astonishing by itself, but the bizarre nature of this judgment is only made clear when one hears the reasons. Two of the reasons stated by Karleklar—the indictment of a journalist for possessing stolen classified materials and the problems that one television station has had in getting its license renewed—are hardly violations of freedom but do speak to issues that could be misinterpreted as tyrannical if they were discussing a country where there wasn’t a vibrant free press. But the third is so absurd as to call into question not merely the judgment but the impartiality of the entire report.

The report claims that the appearance on the scene of Israel Hayom, a relatively new Israeli newspaper, is a threat to press freedom because it is a success that has hurt the business prospects of its competitors. No, you didn’t misread that sentence. Freedom House is taking the position that the fact that Israel Hayom has claimed an impressive share of the hyper-competitive newspaper market is undermining the freedom of the press. The justification for this ridiculous claim is that Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul and well-known contributor to Republican candidates, has “subsidized” the paper and that its editorial line favors Prime Minister Netanyahu. The paper, which is distributed free of charge, is now the most-read paper in Israel, a state of affairs which Freedom House not unreasonably connects to the demise of Maariv, a longtime mainstay of the Hebrew daily press. But the question readers of this report have to ask is what in the name of Joseph Pulitzer does the ability of Adelson’s paper to succeed where many other print papers are failing have to do with freedom of the press?

The implication of the report is that there is something sinister in the way Israel Hayom has conducted its business and that its backing of Netanyahu creates a quasi-official press organ. But that is specious reasoning that bears no relation to either truth or the realities of the publishing business.

Newspapers that are distributed free of charge are not exactly an innovation. Many local sheets are run in that manner all across the United States. Moreover, the Metro papers that are available in a number of major urban markets including New York are operated in the same fashion without anyone—other than their competitors or critics of their superficial content—crying foul.

If Israel Hayom has won the affection of a plurality of Israeli readers in a country where people are, as Freedom House notes, avid consumers of newspapers in a fashion that is no longer the case in places like the United States, it is not because of a supposedly unfair advantage but because readers prefer it. And that is something that relates directly to the false implications of Freedom House’s report that tries to allege that its appearance is an attempt to suppress opposition views.

It will come as little surprise to Americans who are aware of the way their own press tilts to the left that this is even more true in Israel. The Hebrew press in Israel has always had a strong left-wing tilt with a particular bias against Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its predecessors. If there was any criticism to be made of the press in Israel in the past it was the lack of ideological diversity, a situation that was admittedly troubling in the era before the first Likud government was elected in 1977, when government ownership of the few broadcast outlets as well as its interests in the press allowed little room for dissent from the Labor Party.

But, like the appearance of Fox News and talk radio in the United States, Israel Hayom has helped rectify a historical imbalance. Its rivals may decry its success, but the fact that it has thrived is testimony to Israeli freedom, not its absence. If more people prefer its columns to that of, say, Haaretz, which enjoys an undeserved reputation for excellence abroad, it is due to the fact that the latter regularly attacks not just Netanyahu but the entire idea of a Jewish state. Like Murdoch, Adelson’s paper has captured an underserved niche that happens to consist of approximately half of the Israeli public.

As for the other two complaints against Israel, they are easily dismissed.

One concerns the indictment of Haaretz’s Uri Blau for possession of state secrets. It may be unusual for governments in free countries to prosecute journalists who obtain classified documents in addition to the leakers. But it should be remembered that Israel remains a nation at war, besieged by real enemies who shoot rockets and launch terrorist attacks against it as well as threatening it with extinction. That military censorship of security-related stories still exists is regrettable but necessary. When one considers that the documents that he received dealt with actual operational details of the Israeli military rather than outdated items that didn’t deserve a classified rating, the seriousness of the crime can’t be underestimated.

As it happens, Blau got off rather lightly for trafficking in stolen top-secret documents when he received four months of community service for an offense with troubling implications for the country’s ability to defend itself. Suffice it to say that if any American journalist had behaved similarly during a war when our own survival was at stake, as in World War II, they would not have received such merciful treatment.

The third black mark against Israel concerned the licensing of Channel 10, an independent television channel that had broadcast highly critical reports about Netanyahu. Its license was held up leading to charges that the Likud had retaliated against Channel 10. But even the Freedom House report admits that the real problem with the network is that it was deeply in debt and couldn’t pay its bills. But rather than suppressing a hostile news outlet, the government actually stepped in and helped the channel repay its debts over an extended period allowing it to keep its license. Any idea that this represents the heavy hand of government repression is simply contradicted by the facts.

It boggles the mind how any of this could possibly be interpreted by an impartial evaluator as proof that Israel’s lively press is less free. As muddled as Freedom House’s views on the Blau and Channel 10 cases might be, their arguments are within the bounds of reasonable opinion. But for the group to treat the success of a news organization that has actually made the mainstream press in Israel more diverse as a blow to freedom is not reasonable. In fact, it betrays an ideological bias that undermines the credibility of their report.

The focus of any attempt to defend freedom of the press ought to be on the efforts of governments throughout the globe to repress dissent and to threaten and imprison journalists, not to defend the hegemony of liberals in democracies. Israel remains a bulwark of liberty in a region where despotism is the rule, including a nation like Egypt which recently replaced an authoritarian dictator with a theocratic tyranny. Freedom House ought to be ashamed of tarnishing its impressive brand in this manner. They need to retract the attack on Israel Hayom and restore the Jewish state’s rating to “free.”

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Erdoğan: Media’s Job Is to Praise Me

In comments to the press following an incident last week at the Middle East Technical University in which police attacked students protesting his appearance, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared, “We have a problem with the media. It is their mission to announce good things to my people. This is what I want.”

Reporters without Frontiers has dubbed Erdoğan’s Turkey “the World’s Biggest Prison for Journalists.” Many Turkish journalists are bold and at the forefront of honest reporting but when it comes to press freedom, alas, Turkish journalists have at times been their own worst enemies. Taraf, often described as a liberal, pro-democracy paper, behaved as a Turkish version of Lyndon LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review, breathlessly reporting stories regarding fantastic conspiracies and alleged plots against elected officials. They cheered as their opponents were rounded up by an increasingly power-hungry Erdoğan, never mind that the evidence was dismissed as fraudulent by every independent expert that has seen it. As Harvard Professor Dani Rodrik explained:

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In comments to the press following an incident last week at the Middle East Technical University in which police attacked students protesting his appearance, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared, “We have a problem with the media. It is their mission to announce good things to my people. This is what I want.”

Reporters without Frontiers has dubbed Erdoğan’s Turkey “the World’s Biggest Prison for Journalists.” Many Turkish journalists are bold and at the forefront of honest reporting but when it comes to press freedom, alas, Turkish journalists have at times been their own worst enemies. Taraf, often described as a liberal, pro-democracy paper, behaved as a Turkish version of Lyndon LaRouche’s Executive Intelligence Review, breathlessly reporting stories regarding fantastic conspiracies and alleged plots against elected officials. They cheered as their opponents were rounded up by an increasingly power-hungry Erdoğan, never mind that the evidence was dismissed as fraudulent by every independent expert that has seen it. As Harvard Professor Dani Rodrik explained:

The prosecution asserted that the coup was planned in 2003, citing unsigned documents on compact discs it claims were produced by the defendants at the time. However, even though the last-saved dates on these documents appear as 2002-2003, they were found to contain references to fonts and other attributes that were first introduced with Microsoft Office 2007. Hence the documents could not have been created before mid-2006, when the software was released. The handwriting on the CDs was similarly found to be forged. In addition, many defendants have proved that they were outside Turkey or hundreds of miles away from work at the time they are alleged to have prepared these documents or attended coup-planning meetings. The documents also contain countless anachronisms, such as names of organizations and places that didn’t yet exist in 2003 or were changed after that time.

Too many Turkish (and American) liberals were willing to bite their tongues at this and other blatant miscarriages of justice. By the time they realized Turkey’s Putin would come after them as well, it was too late. Perhaps the Turkish liberals should have known better, but some American diplomats and officials have an excuse: Some Turkish journalists like Cengiz Çandar actively ran interference for Erdoğan, blaming accusations of human rights abuses in Turkey on, you guessed, it neocons. All too often, whether in Turkey, Egypt, or Russia, the path to dictatorship is laid in part by journalists willing to trade principle for access. As many Turkish journalists have begun to learn, ideological fealty and self-censorship in pursuit of access erodes freedom. Alas, by the time the press learns such lessons, it is often too late.

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