ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan branded acclaimed novelist Paul Auster as ignorant on Tuesday for refusing to visit Turkey in protest at the jailing of journalists, accusing the Jewish American writer of double-standards for visiting Israel.
Though a foreign novelist made an easy target, there is rising unease over press freedom under Erdogan among Turkish liberals, many of whom had supported his mission to strengthen democracy and tame Turkey’s coup-making generals.
Some 100 members of the news media are in jail in Turkey, one of the highest numbers worldwide. The government insists they are not being prosecuted because of what they wrote.
“If you come so what? If you don’t come, so what? Will Turkey lose prestige?,” Erdogan said in a mocking voice to applause from provincial leaders of his ruling AK Party at a meeting in the capital Ankara.
He criticized 64-year-old Auster, author of “The New York Trilogy” and more than a dozen other novels, for visiting Israel, with which Turkey has frosty relations, accusing the Jewish state of repression and rights violations.
“Supposedly Israel is a democratic, secular country, a country where freedom of expression and individual rights and freedoms are limitless. What an ignorant man you are,” Erdogan said.
“Aren’t these the ones that rained bombs down on Gaza? The ones that launched phosphorus bombs and used chemical weapons. How can you not see this?” Erdogan said.
“This gentleman can’t see the repression and rights violations in Israel... This is serious disrespect to Turkey.”
In an interview with the Turkish daily Hurriyet published on Sunday, Auster was reported as saying he was refusing to visit Turkey to protest the imprisonment of writers and journalists,
Auster’s most recent book Winter Journal has been translated into Turkish and published before the English version.
The AK Party, a socially conservative party that sprang from a banned Islamist party, won a third consecutive term in power last June, and concerns over press freedom has dogged Erdogan’s government for the past few years.
Erdogan’s critics have rallied round the cause of 11 journalists on trial over alleged links to a secret network conspiring to overthrow the government. They have been held in prison since last March.
One of Turkey’s best known writers, Mehmet Ali Birand described media cases before the courts as “frankly a disgrace.”
“You are all liars,” Birand raged in the Hurriyet Daily News on Tuesday. “I’m talking about you: politicians in power, business circles, military, members of the judiciary.”
“You credit those who protect your interests as “good journalists,” but drag through the mud those who have contrary views. And then you dare to talk about freedom in this country.”
The United States, European Union and rights groups have all criticized the prosecution of journalists which they say taints Turkey’s image as a role model for democracy in the Middle East.
Last month, Erdogan filed libel cases against the editor of the Taraf newspaper Ahmet Altan and a correspondent at the paper, Perihan Magden, over articles criticizing him.