Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday rejected growing criticism that his government was muzzling the press, saying many Western countries had even worse records on media freedom, including Israel, Germany and the United States.
Erdogan’s speech to parliament followed a report by the US-based watchdog Freedom House earlier this month, which downgraded Turkey’s status from “partly free” to “not free” and said the country had seen the biggest decline in press freedom in Europe.
“Those who say that there is no press freedom in Turkey should take a look at the headlines of the daily newspapers in Turkey. A significant number of them systematically insult the government,” he told parliament.
“When you criticize these immoral headlines, they call you a dictator. But in other countries, they call it democracy,” he said.
“Let’s see what happens when one of these headlines is published in the countries deemed freer than Turkey. I can’t imagine what would happen to the journalists and the newspapers of those countries.”
“We will not bow to these monuments of arrogance.”
Erdogan cited violations of press freedom in the United States, Israel and Germany, saying Turkey had a better record than any of them.
All three countries received “free” ratings in the annual Freedom House survey.
The Turkish premier has come under mounting pressure since audio recordings spread across social media that appeared to put him at the heart of a major corruption scandal that erupted in mid-December, implicating key government allies.
In some of the leaked audio recordings, Erdogan is allegedly heard pressuring media bosses to fire dissenting journalists, interfering in media coverage and erupting in anger over newspaper headlines critical of him or his government.
Erdogan, who has dominated politics for 11 years, has accused US-exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen of being behind the graft probe and the damaging leaks to undermine his rule.
In response, he launched a wide-ranging crackdown on Internet that saw Twitter banned for two weeks. A similar ban on YouTube imposed in March remains in place despite several court orders calling for the restriction to be lifted.
The bans have added to concern among rights groups and Turkey’s Western allies about basic freedoms and rights in a country that has jailed more reporters than any other country, including serial offenders Iran, China and Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Despite charges of growing authoritarianism and the corruption scandal, Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) claimed a resounding victory in local elections in March.