ISTANBUL (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said during a trip to Turkey on Friday that intimidating the media, curtailing internet freedom and accusing academics of treason was not setting a good example in the Middle East.
Speaking on a two-day visit to the NATO ally and key member of the U.S.-led alliance against Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Biden said the strength of Turkish democracy had a direct impact on the strength of ties with the United States.
"The more Turkey succeeds, the stronger the message sent to the entire Middle East and parts of the world who are only beginning to grapple with the notion of freedom," Biden said, flanked by members of Turkish civil society groups.
"But when the media are intimidated or imprisoned for critical reporting, when internet freedom is curtailed and social media sites like YouTube or Twitter are shut down and more than 1,000 academics are accused of treason simply by signing a petition, that’s not the kind of example that needs to be set," he told reporters.
Turkey was cited by Washington in the early years of Tayyip Erdogan's rule, following the AK Party's election in 2002, as an example for the Middle East of a functioning Islamic democracy. But more recently, reforms have faltered and President Erdogan himself has demonstrated a more authoritarian style.
Nonetheless, Erdogan is a vital partner for both Washington and Europe in efforts to combat Islamic State, end Syria's civil war, and curb the flow of migrants and refugees. Some of his critics have accused Western governments of pulling their punches over his human rights record as a result.
Erdogan last week denounced as "dark, nefarious and brutal" more than 1,000 signatories, including U.S. philosopher Noam Chomsky, of a declaration that criticized Turkish military action in the largely Kurdish southeast.
"ROBBED OF OPPORTUNITY"
Security forces briefly detained 27 of the academics on accusations of terrorist propaganda. Dozens face investigation by their universities.
Their declaration accused the government of heavy-handedness in its efforts to weed out autonomy-seeking militants in the largely-Kurdish southeast, where violence has flared since a ceasefire collapsed last July.
Turkish media reports said Biden also met the wife and son of jailed journalist Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the left-wing Cumhuriyet newspaper, who was arrested in November over the publication of footage purporting to show the state intelligence agency helping send weapons to Syria.
The Turkish government says detained journalists are being held for promoting terrorism or engaging in anti-state activities rather than simply for their journalistic work.
Insulting public officials is a crime in Turkey, and lawyers for Erdogan have sued cartoonists, teenagers and a former Miss Turkey winner in the past.
Biden, on the first day of a two-day visit, said:
"If you do not have the ability to express your own opinion, to criticize policy, offer competing ideas without fear of intimidation or retribution, then your country is being robbed of opportunity."
(Reporting by David Dolan; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Daren Butler and Ralph Boulton)