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WASHINGTON – It was a tense start for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Washington for a nuclear security summit, as his security guards tussled with several journalists covering a speech.
Turkish security officials tried to remove journalist Adem Yavuz Arslan from the Brookings Institution, the venue for Erdogan's speech. The policy institute's security guards intervened, asking the Turkish officials to leave the room.
Earlier, the officials had stopped the journalist — who works for opposition media — from entering. A second Turkish journalist said Erdogan's bodyguards kicked him in the leg, injuring him outside the event and prevented him from attending.
Another journalist, Amberin Zaman, a former Turkey correspondent for The Economist, said the Turkish security detail called her a "PKK whore" as she was standing outside the event. The PKK, or Kurdistan Worker's Party, is a Kurdish militant group that Turkey and the United States classifies as a terrorist organization.
Erdogan is facing increasing criticism for his crackdown on free speech at home. Arslan has worked at outlets linked to U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a bitter enemy of Erdogan. The government accuses Gulen of plotting to overthrow it and put him on trial in absentia last year.
The injured journalist, Emre Uslu, has written for another Gulen-linked English-language newspaper. He says he was left bloodied by the kick to his leg and could not get by security to attend the event, although he was on the guest list.
The treatment would not be surprising in Turkey. In recent months, the government has moved to seize control of a number of media outlets linked to Gulen as part of a broad offensive against dissent, especially against Erdogan personally.
Protesters, many criticizing Turkish treatment of its Kurdish minority, gathered Thursday outside the Brookings event before Erdogan's arrival. A Turkish Embassy official declined to comment on the incidents at the event.
In his speech, Erdogan addressed a wide array of foreign policy issues. He expressed optimism about improving relations with Israel and holding talks to reunify Cyprus. He also criticized Western support of Kurdish rebels in Syria whom Turkey considers part of a terrorist group, and called for more Western funding to help Syrian refugees.
Erdogan has faced a cool reception from the Obama administration, but he said U.S.-Turkish relations are good.
"The Turkish-American relationship is strong enough to resolve differences through dialogue," he said.
Erdogan took questions, including some by moderator Martin Indyk about press freedom in Turkey and Erdogan's frequent use of a law against insulting the president. The country's justice minister recently said that as many as 1,845 cases have been opened against people accused of insulting Erdogan. Critics say Erdogan has been aggressively using the law to muzzle dissent. Those who have gone on trial include celebrities, journalists and students — many for their postings on social media.
Erdogan repeated government assertions — widely criticized by international media freedom advocates — that no journalist is in prison or under prosecution because of journalism work. He also said he welcomed all manner of criticism, but could not tolerate insults.
"When it comes to insult and defamation, of course I have problems," he said.
Despite the questions on media freedom, Indyk stressed that the event was a policy discussion and did not call on journalists sitting in the back of the room.
Since Erdogan rose to power in 2002, several news outlets seized by the government have been handed over to businesses close to the party. Tax inspections and tax fines have served to intimidate many media outlets, which fear falling afoul of the government. Journalists who are critical of the government have been fired. More than a dozen journalists are in prison, although the government insists they have been jailed for criminal activity, not journalistic work.
The Washington-based National Press Club issued a statement criticizing the Turkish security.
"Turkey's leader and his security team are guests in the United States," said press club president Thomas Burr. "They have no right to lay their hands on reporters or protesters or anyone else for that matter, when the people they were apparently roughing up seemed to be merely doing their jobs or exercising the rights they have in this country."