Turkey, a key U.S. ally and a member of NATO, continues to travel down a disturbingly authoritarian path. Last week, police in Istanbul stormed the offices of Zaman, the country's most widely circulated newspaper, subjecting employees and supporters to tear gas and water cannons. Earlier, a court had transferred control of the publication to a panel of trustees after a prosecutor accused the paper of spreading terrorist propaganda.
Zaman and its English-language sister publication are identified with the Cemaat movement led by the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, political rival and former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This week the Cihan news agency, also linked to Gulen, said that it too would be managed by court appointees.
The takeover of those outlets follows similar actions against other news organizations. In October, authorities ordered the seizure of Koza Ipek Group, which operated several television stations critical of the government. Meanwhile, prosecutors have pursued more than 1,800 cases of “insulting the president” since Erdogan, a former prime minister, was elected president in 2014.
Such stifling of political opponents is impossible to reconcile with the preamble of the treaty establishing NATO, which invokes “the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”
The Obama administration called the action against Zaman “troubling,” joining the chorus of criticism from human-rights groups. But it is also mindful that Turkey is a NATO ally and a key player in both the fight against Islamic State and the negotiations to end the civil war in Syria.
This isn't the first time the commitment of the U.S. to human rights tugs it in one direction while strategic interests pull in another. After the Egyptian military overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the Obama administration suspended the delivery of some weapons. But it relented two years later, when Egypt was confronted with instability in neighboring Libya and threats from Islamic State-affiliated groups.
On Monday, State Department spokesman John Kirby deflected a reporter's suggestion that the U.S. might impose sanctions on Turkish officials similar to those Congress approved against Russians involved in human-rights abuses, saying, “I won't get ahead of decisions that haven't been made one way or another with respect to that.” Kirby also suggested that disagreements over press freedom needn't “tear asunder an entire bilateral relationship.”
Perhaps not, but even if the U.S. feels constrained in the actions it can take, it should leave no doubt about what it thinks: that muzzling the press and political opponents is not just “troubling” but outrageous.