US Ambassador Strongly Criticizes Turkey’s Press Freedoms

US Ambassador to Turkey, Francis J. Ricciardone

ANKARA (Hürriyet Daily News)—US Ambassador to Ankara Francis J. Ricciardone issued strong criticism Wednesday of the state of press freedom in Turkey, using a Turkish idiom to express what he observed as contradictory behavior and drawing a quick, harsh reaction from the prime minister.

The envoy also dismissed claims that he had “backtracked” after his previous remarks on the same topic angered Turkish officials, saying the United States’ commitment to media freedom remained firm.

“We [the United States and Turkey] are friends. Friends try to understand each other … Sometimes from outside you see things in another party, in a friend, in a country that seem contradictory and we ask friends – I learned a wonderful expression – ‘Bu ne perhiz bu ne lahana turşusu,’” Ricciardone told a group of journalists during a breakfast meeting.

“I love that expression: ‘This is not a diet, nor a cabbage pickle.’ It is so hard to translate into English, so as foreigners we see it is neither a diet nor a cabbage pickle and we say, ‘What is this all about?’” the ambassador said, responding to a question about recently arrested journalists and the confiscation of an unpublished book by one of the jailed reporters.

“In that context, we ask the same question as you do: ‘What is this all about?’” Ricciardone said.

The expression he referred to is used in Turkish to question the actions of someone whose behavior seems to be in contradiction with their stated aims, such as eating high-salt food while claiming to be on a diet.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to respond to the ambassador’s criticism. “Let them first comprehend and know themselves what democracy is,” Erdoğan said in Strasbourg.

Comments the ambassador made about press freedom shortly after being posted to Turkey as the top U.S. diplomat in Ankara drew criticism from the Turkish government. He later said he was trying to understand the situation as a foreigner, a response seen as backtracking.

“There is no shifting, no backtracking when it comes to upholding our principles and our law. We support freedom of expression and that means media freedom. Full stop,” Ricciardone said Wednesday.

“There is the job of foreigners, foreign diplomats in any country to try to understand what is going on. So we speak with opinion leaders like you,” he said. “People in the media, people in politics, people in academia, people in business, educated people, influential people, religious leaders, cultural leaders, entertainers – we speak to everybody because we want to understand the country.”

The ambassador’s remarks followed the release of a human rights report by the U.S. State Department that indicated a decline in Turkish press freedom. Ricciardone said he talked about the issue with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whom he said conveyed very strongly that no democracy can progress without a free media.

“We agreed on this point,” Ricciardone said.

Asked about the state of democracy in Turkey, the ambassador said the country has done pretty well over the years. “You’ll decide if your democracy is sufficient,” he added. “What you reject will be rejected.”

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