How to Counter Erdogan's Assault on the Free Press

Employees of Zaman gather at the courtyard of the newspaper during a protest in Istanbul on March 4. Turkish authorities seized control of the paper, the country's largest, on March 4, state-run media said, in a widening crackdown against supporters of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, an influential foe of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kursat Bayhan/Zaman Daily/Reuters

This article was first published on the American Enterprise Institute's site.

On March 4, the Turkish government seized the Feza Media Group, which includes Zaman (one of Turkey's highest-circulating dailies), its English-language corollary Today's Zaman, the Cihan News Agency, Aksiyon news magazine and Irmak TV among others.

It put them under the control of government-appointed trustees, effectively silencing one of the most influential non-governmental media voices inside Turkey.

This, of course, is not the first time that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's dictatorial ruler, has targeted a newspaper, television, or media company that refused to toe his line.

Most have met with ineffective and subdued American responses. There was little biting action after Erdoğan levied a spurious multibillion dollar fine on the Doğan group to try to cow its substantive press holdings into compliance with his policies.

Then, there was the troubling case of Sabah, once one of Turkey's most important newspapers. After the government seized that paper and put it up for auction, Erdogan and his aides appear, mafia-style, to have hinted to all potential participants in the subsequent auction that they should drop their bids. As a result, Erdogan's son-in-law ended up winning control over that company, even though his bid technically was illegal.

How unfortunate it was, then, that when President Barack Obama welcomed Erdogan to the White House in May 2013, it was in Sabah that Obama chose to place an op-ed praising the U,S.-Turkey partnership.

Such lackluster if not contradictory defense of press freedom convinces would-be strongmen like Erdogan that they can act with impunity. The same day that Obama feted his Turkish counterpart, Erdogan's government seized the media assets of the Çukurova group including newspapers like Akşam, Tercüman and Güneş.

This brings us back to the March 4 seizure of Zaman and other outlets affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric living in a Pennsylvania exile. The State Department responded to the seizure of Turkey's largest opposition media group with boilerplate language labeling the move "troubling." That's not enough.

Make no mistake: I've never been a huge fan of Zaman or Gülen's Hizmet movement. Both have attacked me repeatedly. But that's neither here nor there when it comes to press freedom. Thick skins are essential for robust debate; banning debate is a recipe for dictatorship.

It's time to deem all such seizures illegitimate and ban and revoke the American visas for any Turkish journalist involved with the seizure of such outlets, the businessmen who buy them and the editors appointed to manage confiscated papers or television stations. Consider it the Turkish version of the Magnitsky Act, which revoked U.S, visa privileges for Russian officials involved in human rights abuses.

Such legislation might not reverse the trend, but it would signal that Washington will no longer ignore attacks on the free press. There will be a cost for those journalists who, whether out of ambition or ideology, excused if not encouraged Erdogan's attacks on the press or sought to personally benefit from the elimination of rivals.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.