ISTANBUL (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday that Turkey must act on concerns about backsliding on human rights and its secular traditions, chiding a NATO ally whose support is critical to American goals in the Mideast.
Speaking politely but firmly about the moderate Muslim nation, Clinton said the recent arrests of dozens of journalists and curbs placed on religious freedom were “inconsistent” with Turkey’s economic and political progress.
She said Turkey should recommit itself to the course of modernization and embrace the democratic institutions of statehood. By doing so, Turkey could serve as a model for Arab nations now in the midst of revolt or transition, America’s top diplomat said.
“Across the region, people in the Middle East and North Africa are seeking to draw lessons from Turkey’s experience,” she told reporters at a news conference with Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. “Turkey’s history serves as a reminder that democratic development also depends on responsible leadership.”
She called on the Turkish people to use their constitutional reform process to “address concerns … about recent restrictions on freedom of expression and religion” and boost protection for the rights of minorities.
Those concerns have stalled Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and further cement ties with the West.
Clinton noted that the U.S. long has backed Turkey’s EU membership and said Washington was counting on the country to live up to the standards of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Ataturk was a war hero who led Turkey to independence at the end of the Ottoman Empire and ruled for 15 years until his death in 1938. He imposed a secularist vision on the nation.
At a town hall event earlier where she took questions from young Turks, Clinton criticized the arrests of journalists. She said the detentions have fed fears about threats to press freedom in the majority Muslim nation.
“I do not think it is necessary or in Turkey’s interests to be cracking down. It seems to me inconsistent with all the other advances Turkey has made,” she said.
Turkey’s institutions should be able to withstand the scrutiny and debate that a free press brings, Clinton said.
Turkish media groups say more than 60 journalists are in jail. The groups accuse authorities of using flimsy evidence to bring the charges.
Government officials said in April there were 26 journalists in jail in Turkey for activities unrelated to journalism. Officials have cited the role of some sectors of the media in fanning support for past coups led by the Turkish military, a staunch supporter of the secular system.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Turkey is a member, says 57 journalists are jailed in Turkey, mostly on anti-terror charges. That includes people with alleged ties to Kurdish rebels and extremists.
Clinton’s comments were likely to encourage more liberal Turks but irritate Turkey’s leaders, including Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A small group protested Clinton’s visit outside the U.S. Embassy. In Istanbul, one man holding a Turkish flag staged a protest as Clinton met Orthodox Patriarchate Bartholomew, accusing Washington of “killing millions of Muslims.”
Erdogan, long seen as a vital bridge between East and West, has worried some by taking steps at odds with U.S. and Western policies.
He insists that his ruling party, which has Islamist roots, is committed to secularism. But since President Barack Obama took office, Erdogan has clashed with Israel and opposed U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
During George W. Bush’s administration, Turkey opposed the war in Iraq and refused to allow troops to enter Iraq from its territory, creating additional divisions over the conflict within NATO.
At the coffee house, Clinton also urged Turks to continue to embrace inclusive traditions and serve as the East-West bridge, without choosing one or the other.
“I don’t think there is any reason for Turkey to shift from West to East,” she said. “As an outsider, I have always thought the debate is a debate without real meaning to it because why would you give up one for another? You can look both ways and to me that is an incredible advantage.”