Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused U.S. President Barack Obama for going “behind his back” to criticize Erdogan’s crackdown on journalists, an issue Erdogan claims President Obama did not raise during their informal meeting in Washington on Friday.
Erdogan was miffed by President Obama’s refusal to schedule a former meeting with the Turkish leader while he was visiting the United States, but he and President Obama spoke informally on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in Washington on Friday.
After the summit was concluded, President Obama told reporters, “It’s no secret that there are some trends within Turkey that I have been troubled with. “I think the approach they have been taking toward the press is one that could lead Turkey down a path that would be very troubling.”
Obama said he expressed these concerns “directly” to Erdogan, but Erdogan insists he did not, and said he was taken by surprise when Obama made his comments to the press.
“I have been saddened that this kind of statement has been made in my absence. These issues did not come up on the agenda in our meeting with Mr. Obama,” Erdogan said on Saturday, as reported by Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News.
“I have not been told this kind of thing,” Erdogan said of Obama’s criticism. “Besides, in our previous telephone conversations, we agreed that talking face to face would be more useful rather than talking through press.”
Erdogan proceeded to display the rather tenuous grasp of “free speech” that President Obama found troubling, by saying that criticizing him was acceptable, but insulting him should be forbidden, and simultaneously offering the very same “insults” he is trying to outlaw as proof that he is not a dictator, since he has not outlawed them yet.
“As I have stated in my speech at the Brookings Institute, there is need to make a distinction between criticism and insult. Here, during my meeting with opinion leaders, I explained them with examples. In some newspapers in Turkey, headlines calling the president as ‘murderer, robber’ are being written. Threats are being hurled in headlines,” Erdogan complained, as reported by Hurriyet.
“Newspapers and magazines which make these insults are still continuing their print lives. If it was true that there was a dictatorship in Turkey, then how could such publications come out?” Erdogan asked.
He then bizarrely claimed that “such insults and threats are not permitted in the West,” which will come as news to just about every Western politician, and claimed that he would have set President Obama straight with his examples of offensive Turkish headlines, if the American President had raised the issue during their talks.
During the course of Erdogan’s visit to the United States, his bodyguards vigorously expressed the Turkish President’s unusual view of press freedoms, as described by AFP: “One aimed a chest-high kick at an American reporter attempting to film the harassment of a Turkish opposition reporter, while another called a female foreign policy scholar a ‘whore.'”
“Turkey has seized control of opposition newspapers and TV channels and cut the satellite feed of a pro-Kurdish channel, accusing them of terrorism-related activities. Erdogan has personally brought more than 1,800 criminal suits against individuals, including journalists and children, for insulting him since becoming president in 2014,” Reuters reports.
Reuters notes that while he was objecting to President Obama’s remarks, Erdogan also muttered that a shadowy “mastermind” is “playing games over Turkey,” using criticism of Erdogan’s media crackdown to “divide, shatter if they could, and swallow up” the country. Erdogan and his supporters refer to this “mastermind” often, but are never clear about who it’s supposed to be.