Published by The New York Times 24 April 2016
ISTANBUL — Ebru Umar, a Dutch journalist, wrote a column last week critical of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his government’s growing crackdown on freedom of expression. She later took to Twitter, criticizing supporters of Mr. Erdogan and using a profanity.
On Saturday night, the police arrived at her summer home in Turkey and took her in for questioning for insulting Mr. Erdogan, a crime in Turkey. Ms. Umar was released from custody on Sunday, she said on Twitter, but was barred from leaving the country.
She is the latest on a growing list of journalists, academics, cartoonists and others — nearly 2,000 cases have been filed in Turkish courts — who have faced the Turkish justice system for insulting Mr. Erdogan. The crime carries a sentence of four years in prison. Ms. Umar was detained just as European leaders, including Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, were wrapping up a visit to Turkey to highlight progress in its pact with the European Union over the migrant crisis.
Turkey’s clampdown on the news media has increasingly become intertwined with Europe’s attempts to cooperate with Turkey on the migrant issue. European leaders, especially Ms. Merkel, are facing criticism that they are betraying European values in a bid to win over Mr. Erdogan.
Turkey has seemed to extend its crackdown beyond its borders. Ms. Merkel, for instance, was highly criticized in her own country for allowing a case to proceed against a German comedian who read a profanity-laced, satirical poem about Mr. Erdogan on television. Turkey filed a formal complaint under a rarely used German law that prohibits insulting foreign leaders.
Late Friday, Ms. Merkel reacted for the first time to criticism of how she had handled the affair. She defended her decision to allow further investigation by prosecutors, but said she regretted saying she shared the view of the Turkish authorities that the poem was offensive. “Looking back, that was a mistake,” she said. “The impression arose that freedom of opinion and freedom of the press were not important. They are important to me and will remain so.”
In a further embarrassment to European leaders, a Turkish consular official in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, asked Turks in the country last week to report any insults directed at Mr. Erdogan. Ms. Umar, who has dual Dutch and Turkish citizenship, wrote a column in the newspaper Metro that took aim at that request. In the column, she called Mr. Erdogan “the most megalomaniac dictator since the foundation of the republic in 1923.” She addressed the column to “every Dutch-Turk who supports this call by the consulate and thinks they can act as traitors by snitching on what Dutch people say about ‘sultan’ Erdogan.”
Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands said on Twitter on Sunday that he had spoken with Ms. Umar by phone, and emphasized that the Foreign Ministry was working to assist her.
Turkey, under the famously thin-skinned Mr. Erdogan, has for years silenced domestic voices that have been critical of the government, but lately has taken aim at foreign journalists as well. The Istanbul correspondent for the German publication Der Spiegel was effectively expelled from the country this year after his press accreditation was not renewed. And last week, a German television correspondent was denied entry to the country.
It is one thing for Europe to look past these issues now, but as part of the agreement on containing the migrant crisis, European leaders agreed to speed up Turkey’s lapsed negotiations to join the European Union. The fundamental disagreement over freedom of expression is likely to be central to those negotiations if they ever resume in earnest.
A statement released Sunday by the Dutch Foreign Ministry said: “Freedom of speech and freedom of the press is a fundamental right. An E.U. candidate member state should honor such rights.”
On Saturday evening, after visiting a refugee camp near Gaziantep, a Turkish city near the Syrian border, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Tusk joined the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, at a news conference.
Mr. Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland, who was once imprisoned there before the fall of Communism, noted that Mr. Erdogan, too, had once been jailed for his views. In 1999, Mr. Erdogan, an Islamist, was jailed by Turkey’s secular government for reciting a religious poem.
Mr. Tusk, in comments directed at Mr. Erdogan, said, “My idea on this is that I learned and accepted to be thick-skinned as a politician.”