- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2016

Turkey’s shuttering of more than a dozen media outlets and arrest of 12 journalists at one of the nation’s main opposition newspapers prompted a rebuke Monday from the Obama administration — a development likely to further sour relations between the two NATO allies.

“The United States is deeply concerned by what appears to be an increase in official pressure on opposition media outlets in Turkey,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington.

While he said the administration will “stand by our NATO ally,” Mr. Kirby called on Ankara to ensure “the rule of law and fundamental freedoms are protected” as Turkey pushes for justice against those responsible for a July coup attempt that nearly brought the nation to its knees.

The closing of 15 media outlets over the weekend and Monday’s arrest of the top editor and several senior staffers at Cumhuriyet — a respected opposition paper — raised concerns that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains bent on exploiting the failed coup to crush all dissent in Turkey.

“Today’s detention of journalists and staff from Turkey’s only remaining mainstream opposition newspaper is part of an ongoing systematic attempt to silence all critical voices,” Amnesty International’s Europe Director John Dalhuisen said Monday in a statement.

“Together with the shutting down of media houses over the weekend, this is the latest wave in a post-coup purge which has turned Turkey’s once vibrant media landscape into a wasteland,” Mr. Dalhuisen said. “The blatant misuse of emergency powers to shut down media houses must stop and more than 130 journalists currently in pretrial detention must be immediately released.”

The Erdogan government has defended thousands of arrests by authorities since July 15, when factions of the Turkish military attempted to seize power in a chaotic coup attempt that resulted in at least 240 deaths. The government is reported to have arrested some 37,000 people as part of an evolving purge in the months since.

The latest detentions came a day after 10,000 civil servants were dismissed from their jobs.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz wrote Monday on Twitter that the detentions marked the crossing of “yet another red-line” against freedom of expression in Turkey. “The ongoing massive purge seems motivated by political considerations, rather than legal and security rationale,” he tweeted.

The Erdogan government, meanwhile, accused the arrested Cumhuriyet journalists of committing crimes on behalf of Kurdish militants and the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of Istanbul said the journalists were detained on suspicion of producing propaganda for Mr. Gulen’s international network and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — two rival groups the Turkish government characterizes as terrorist organizations.

The Erdogan government has accused Mr. Gulen of masterminding July’s failed coup and has spent the past three months calling on U.S. officials to extradite the 75-year-old Muslim cleric, who’s been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s.

With Mr. Gulen denying any involvement, tension has risen between Washington and Ankara over the Obama administration’s resistance to extraditing the cleric.

After a meeting on the matter with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch last week, Turkish Justice Minister Bakir Bozdag said “the prolongation of the extradition process is affecting relations between the U.S. and Turkey negatively.”

During a press conference Thursday at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, Mr. Bozdag defended the Erdogan government’s purge — a crackdown that has appeared to widen since the justice minister returned to Turkey.

Cumhuriyet was one of only a few newspapers left in the nation openly critical of Mr. Erdogan. Hundreds of people were gathered in front of the newspaper’s Istanbul offices following Monday’s arrests. Some held banners that said “Journalism is not a crime” and “Sharp pens will tear through the dark.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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