Turkey: An Uncertain Ally

Can Dundar, Cumhuriyet newspaper's editor-in-chief, gives a press conference on March 2, 2016 in Istanbul, after being releas
Can Dundar, Cumhuriyet newspaper's editor-in-chief, gives a press conference on March 2, 2016 in Istanbul, after being released from Silivri prison in Istanbul on February 25, 2016. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on February 28, 2016 he had 'no respect' for a decision by Turkey's top court to release two journalists held on charges of revealing state secrets, triggering accusations he was trampling on the constitution. Two Turkish journalists held in jail for the last three months on hugely controversial charges of revealing state secrets were released early on February 25 after Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled their rights had been violated. / AFP / OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

NATO is more than a security alliance. It is a coalition of countries with shared values. If Turkey stays on its authoritarian course, the Obama administration should rethink the scope of US-Turkey relations.

Turkey's crackdown on freedom of expression is particularly worrisome.

The Turkish government recently closed the trial of Can Dundar, editor in chief of Cumhurriyet, and Erden Gul, the paper's Ankara bureau chief, to the press and public. The journalists are charged with espionage for reporting on the transfer of weapons to ISIS by Turkey's National Intelligence Agency.

Dundar and Gul are facing multiple life sentences, simply for doing their jobs as journalists. They have already spent 92 days in jail, including solitary confinement.

When Turkey's Constitutional Court ordered their release, Erdogan reacted: "I don't obey or respect the decision." He warned that Dundar and Gul would "pay a heavy price."

Beyond this case, independent media is more broadly targeted. The Turkish government recently seized Ipek Holdings and Zaman Holdings, large media conglomerates, replacing their board members with pro-government supporters.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has grave concern about press freedom in Turkey, where 14 journalists have been jailed and dozens fired as part of a systematic campaign to suppress dissent. Human Rights Watch, PEN International and Amnesty have also expressed concern.

To date, more than 1,800 Turks have been charged with "insulting the President."

Article 301 of the Penal Code and Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Act makes it a crime to "denigrate Turkishness." Such regressive legislation is used to silence dissent.

Erdogan has proposed widening the definition of terrorism to include journalists and academics. He maintains there is "no distinction between a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their position and pen to serve the aims" of terror groups.

Members of the judiciary and police have been fired for allegedly establishing a parallel state aimed at overthrowing the government. Erdogan threatens to lift parliamentary immunity for oppositions MPs, to charge them with supporting terrorism. Without checks and balances and the rule of law, Turkey's democratic credentials are undermined.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is proposing constitutional reform. But the AKP's reforms are not about strengthening internationally accepted norms on human rights. The AKP seeks an executive presidency that Erdogan will lead.

The Obama administration has been muted in its response to Turkey's escalating repression. Instead of condemnation, U.S. officials are deferential.

Before Erdogan, Turkey was a reliable security and strategic partner. As a secular, pro-Western democracy, Turkey had a moderating influence on Muslims in Europe and served as a bridge to Muslim majority countries in Central Asia.

Today Turkey is Islamist, authoritarian, and anti-American. Its human rights record, not only on freedom of expression, is abysmal. Since July, Turkey has killed hundreds of Kurdish civilians under the guise of fighting terrorism.

Dundar and Gul are on trial for exposing the truth. It is well-established that Turkey's National Intelligence Agency has given money, weapons and logistical support to jihadis traveling to the battlefield in Syria.

The US needs Turkey as a reliable ally. Silence, out of fear that speaking out would harm short-term interests, risks Turkey's longer-term stability and jeapordizes US interests.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Policy Experts to the State Departments during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.