Turkey and Israel, Partners in Muffling Freedom of the Press

U.S.-based Freedom House, which is led by a Jewish neoconservative, has downgraded both countries. It’s complicated.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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People hold placards as they protest against Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan after the government blocked access to Twitter in Ankara, on March 21, 2014. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Everyone agrees on one thing: Prof. David Kramer is Jewish. He’s also the president of Freedom House, a U.S.-based NGO established in 1941 to promote freedom of the press worldwide.

This month, Ankara took a severe blow when Freedom House cut its ranking for Turkey’s press to Not Free from Partly Free. There were many reasons for the downgrade, including the many journalists who have been imprisoned for political reasons, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s verbal attacks on the media and cross-ownerships that severely restrict press freedom.

Turkey has not remained idle. Pro-government newspapers have come out strongly against Freedom House. On May 4, the daily Star published a front-page story stating that Freedom House had received donations from financier George Soros and Jewish lobby groups. It said the man at the top was Kramer — a Jew and neoconservative.

Star is owned by Star Media Group, which also owns the Kanal 24 television station. Star Media came under state management in 2004 after falling into debt and has been sold several times since.

It is now jointly owned by businessman Tevhit Karakaya, a former MP for the Welfare Party and its successor the Virtue Party — religious parties that gave rise to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party — and Azerbaijani oil company Socar, which produces both crude oil and natural gas.

Socar is also a partner in building the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline. In other words, its financial interests force it to have good relations with Erdogan. The problem is that Socar funds a network of private schools affiliated with the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s archenemy. Erdogan has accused Gulen of trying to harm him and his government by making recent corruption cases public.

So it’s no wonder that right after Erdogan’s visit to Azerbaijan in mid-April, Baku began a campaign against Gulenist institutions in the country; activists were arrested and prosecuted, their homes were searched and their computers were confiscated. It seems that when Azerbaijan and Turkey’s diverse financial interests are in play, freedom of expression is less important.

That’s how Socar’s Turkish newspaper can attack Freedom House and its Jewish president while Azerbaijan has no problem doing deals with Israel and its Jews.

The press-freedom test

Another uproar took place after the media attack on Freedom House. Gonul Tol, a journalist and academic, decided to test Erdogan’s claims about Turkey’s abundant freedom of the press. Tol, the founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, wrote an essay harshly criticizing anti-Semitic claims made by critics of the organization.

At the end of the article, she wrote: “Let’s test the report. If this writing is published as it is, without being caught by the editor, press freedom in Turkey could be freer than what the Freedom House report said.”

She submitted her article to the Turkish newspaper Aksam. It wasn’t published. “A newspaper is not the right place to conduct an experiment,” Aksam’s news coordinator told Hurriyet Daily News.

Aksam is also closely linked to Erdogan. It has gone through many owners since its founding in 1918. Like Star, Aksam was taken over by the government because of the enormous debts of the Cukurova Media Group, and it too went private last year. Its new owner is the Cengiz-Kolin-Limak consortium, which bought the newspaper without a tender.

Cengiz-Kolin-Limak won the tender for building Istanbul’s third airport (at a cost of more than 22 billion euros), as well as for other large government projects. A big business group like that can’t afford to damage its relationship with Erdogan over a journalist seeking to test freedom of expression.

Freedom House needs no better proof that its claims are accurate. But it critics have left out one little matter.

A year ago Kramer, who accepts donations from Jewish lobby groups, didn’t hesitate to lower Israel’s press-freedom ranking to Partly Free from Free. The reason for the downgrade was “the indictment of journalist Uri Blau for possession of state secrets, the first time this law had been used against the press in several decades.”

Other instances included “politicized interference with the content of Israeli Broadcasting Authority radio programs and concerns surrounding the license renewal of television’s Channel 10” and “the economic impact of Israel Hayom, an owner-subsidized free newspaper and now the largest-circulation daily, [which] threatened the sustainability of other papers and contributed to the collapse and buyout of the daily Maariv.”

So it happened that a Jewish neoconservative who receives donations from the Jewish lobby fired arrows at both Turkey and Israel. It seems the time has come for Turkey and Israel to form an alliance to bring Freedom House down.

After all, such a partnership would provide the best proof that Freedom House is anti-Semitic (for Israel) and pro-Jewish (for Turkey).