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Turkey's muzzling of its free press deserves more than finger-wagging from the international community

Turkey's muzzling of its free press deserves more than finger-wagging from the international community
Turkish newspaper editor Can Dundar, left, and Ankarabureau chief Erdem Gul were sentenced last week to five years in prison for their journalism, a move that flouts the idea of a free press. (Ozan Kose / AFP/Getty Images)

An editor and a bureau chief of a Turkish newspaper were sentenced late last week to five years in prison for the crime — at least it's a crime in Turkey — of publishing an article that embarrassed the government. The sentences, which are under appeal, are part of a growing effort by President Tayyip Erdogan to squelch criticism and dissenting views, the latest in a troubling series of events that included the government take-over of an opposition newspaper and the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after he contradicted some of Erdogan's positions.

Turkey is a longtime U.S. ally in a part of the world where reliable friends are sorely needed. As a part of NATO, Turkey is entitled to military protection from fellow member nations, but such oppressive behavior raises serious questions about the relationship with the U.S., as well as the European Union, which Turkey has sought to join.

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Journalism and human rights groups have condemned the moves. The Times editorial board objected in March when Erdogan took over Zaman, then the nation's largest newspaper, and noted the broader crackdown on a free press:

"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.

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"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 also objected, but not particularly strenuously, after Erdogan's government raided the newspaper office with water cannons. Whether a more significant U.S. reaction to these crackdowns may be in the cards is hard to determine, but given how much the U.S. government tiptoes around Turkey, it doesn't seem likely. As I've noted before, the administration still defers to the Turkish insistence that the Armenian genocide not be called a genocide.

The two journalists under sentence are Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, Erdem Gul, the newspaper's Ankara bureau chief. The story that drew the government's ire tracked a shipment of weapons two years ago by Turkish intelligence forces into Syria, part of a flow of weapons that Reuters later reported on, including the repercussions faced by local Turkish officials who intercepted some of the shipments.

Whether the shipments were illegal is a matter for the Turks to settle. But jailing journalists for doing their jobs flouts the NATO treaty preamble that embraces "the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law." Turkey's transgressions demand much more than a finger-wagging by the international community.

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Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

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