U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said during a trip to Turkey on Friday that by intimidating the media, curtailing Internet freedom and accusing academics of treason, the country was not setting a good example in the Middle East.
Speaking on a two-day visit to Turkey, a NATO ally and key member of the U.S.-led alliance against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), he said the strength of Turkish democracy has a direct impact on the strength of ties with the United States.
"The more Turkey succeeds, the stronger the message sent to the entire Middle East and parts of the world who are only beginning to grapple with the notion of freedom," Biden said, flanked by members of Turkish civil society groups.
"But when the media are intimidated or imprisoned for critical reporting, when Internet freedom is curtailed and social media sites like YouTube or Twitter are shut down and more than 1,000 academics are accused of treason simply by signing a petition, that’s not the kind of example that needs to be set," he told reporters.
Turkey was cited by Washington in the early years of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule — starting in 2003 he served three terms as prime minister and was elected president in 2014 — as an example for the Middle East of a functioning Islamic democracy. But more recently, reforms have faltered, and he has demonstrated a more authoritarian style.
Nonetheless, he is a vital partner for the U.S. and Europe in efforts to combat ISIL, end Syria's civil war and curb the flow of migrants and refugees.
Erdogan last week denounced as "dark, nefarious and brutal" more than 1,000 signatories, including American academic Noam Chomsky, of a declaration that criticized military action in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast, where violence has flared since a cease-fire collapsed in July. They accused the government of heavy-handedness in its efforts to weed out autonomy-seeking fighters there.
Security forces briefly detained 27 of the academics on accusations of terrorist propaganda. Dozens face investigation by their universities.
Turkish media reports said Biden met the wife and son of jailed journalist Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of the left-wing Cumhuriyet newspaper, who was arrested in November over the publication of footage purporting to show the state intelligence agency helping send weapons to Syria.
The Turkish government says detained journalists are being held for promoting terrorism or engaging in anti-state activities rather than for their journalistic work.
Insulting public officials is a crime in Turkey, and cartoonists, teenagers and a former Miss Turkey have faced charges over alleged affronts against Erdogan.
Biden, on the first day of his two-day visit, said, "If you do not have the ability to express your own opinion, to criticize policy, offer competing ideas without fear of intimidation or retribution, then your country is being robbed of opportunity."