ANKARA, Turkey – The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Turkey drew criticism from the government Thursday for comments about the media freedoms in Turkey following the detention of a dissident journalist.
Ambassador Francis Ricciardone told Turkish reporters on Tuesday that the U.S. was trying to "make sense" of Turkey's stated support for press freedoms and the detention of journalists.
He spoke a day after police raided an anti-government news website and detained its owner, Soner Yalcin, and three colleagues for questioning over links to an alleged plot to topple Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-inspired government. Prosecutors were questioning the four Thursday to decide whether to press charges.
On Wednesday, some members of Erdogan's party accused the ambassador of interfering in Turkey's internal affairs, an argument repeated by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
"We believe that it is not right for an ambassador to pass judgment over an ongoing criminal investigation," the state-run Anatolia news agency quoted Davutoglu as saying during a visit to Nepal. "As with any other democratic country, the judiciary is independent in Turkey."
Davutoglu added that the journalists' detentions were "not about the freedom of press."
In Ankara, Interior Minister Besir Atalay declared that "Turkey is a country which has more press freedoms than many advanced democratic countries."
Yalcin is one of several journalists to have been detained over an investigation — now in its fourth year — into an alleged hardline secularist complicity to bring down the government through attacks that prosecutors say would have created chaos and sparked a military coup.
Close to 400 people, including politicians, academics and retired military officers, are already on trial for being a part of the alleged plot, called Ergenekon after a legendary ancestral valley believed to have been the home of the Turks.
Critics say the trial is based on flimsy or fabricated evidence and aims to intimidate and muzzle government opponents. The government has defended the Ergenekon investigation as a move toward stronger democracy.
On Thursday, Ricciardone insisted he had not commented on the "merits" of Yalcin's particular case but said as a foreigner there were certain things "he was trying to understand."
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington was standing by Ricciardone's statement.
"We do have ongoing concerns about trends regarding treatment of journalists within Turkey," he said. "We've raised that with the Turkish government, and we'll be watching this case very closely."
There has been a surge in the number of cases filed by state prosecutors against Turkish media, many related to the Ergenekon investigation.
A Turkish journalists' association says thousands of journalists face prosecution, and 58 are currently imprisoned for their writings or opinions.
(This version corrects ambassador's name's spelling to "Ricciardone")