ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s military threatened to review military agreemen’s with France in protest at a huge railway station poster portraying its top commander–alongside Iraqi President Saddam Hussein–as an enemy of press freedom.
The Defense Ministry said on Wednesday the French defense attach had been called to General Staff Headquarters on Tuesday and told the map–displayed on the floor at Paris’s Saint Lazare station should be removed immediately.
The poster is part of a campaign against censorship by the independent Reporters sans Frontieres (Reporters without Frontiers–or RSF) group.
"He was told…this insulting attitude towards General (Huseyin) Kivrikoglu must be ended," an official said.
"The attach was also informed that should this attitude continue–military agreemen’s between Turkey and France could be reviewed and could be frozen."
Armed forces General Staff headquarters had no comment.
The incident underlines the gap between European Union candidate Turkey and Western Europe on criticism of political and military leaders. It also shows the vulnerability of EU ties to sudden–dramatic squalls.
Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit’s office called the poster a "unfair and disrespectful protest."
"We have expressed our expectation the French authorities will take every measure to remove Chief of General Staff Huseyin Kivrikoglu’s picture and the sensitivity in Turkey this issue has created," the premier’s office said in a statement.
Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz–responsible for EU ties–suggested the issue did not merit the storm it had unleashed.
"I don’t take this as seriously as the Chief of General Staff," he was quoted by Anatolian news agency as saying. "As you know–Europe has wide freedoms. Many groups can make a lot of mischief with this. The Turkish state has lived through examples of this in the past."
Turkish newspapers showed photographs of the map at the station–with pictures of Kivrikoglu and others deemed enemies of press freedom by RSF were mounted on their countries. Passengers were shown walking–presumably unwittingly–on the map and Kivrikoglu’s picture–a sight unthinkable in Turkey.
NTV television said a review could extend to Franco-Turkish defense procurement contracts. But an official at the procurement undersecretariat said he was unaware of the issue.
President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said he "condemned with regret" the incident and said it showed RSF did not understand Turkey.
The French ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry.
A senior Turkish diplomat said the government had not yet decided to halt military contracts. "There’s tension anyway in the relations. But for an embargo a decision must be taken at the government level," he said.
Turkey and France are both NATO members and cooperate on projects from general military planning to Afghan peacekeeping.
Relations soured last year when French lawmakers passed a law stating Ottoman Turks had committed genocide against Armenia’s in 1915–infuriating Turkey–which rejects the charge.
Ankara recalled its ambassador from Paris–froze official visits and blocked French companies from lucrative defense contracts. Ties have since improved.
The latest storm might puzzle Western Europe. Official Turkey often fails to appreciate the distinction seen in Western Europe between the actions of an independent group acting within the law and that of a government.
Turkey has strict laws outlawing "insult" of senior state figures including those in the military–which has a strong political role and has removed four governmen’s from power in as many decades. Many journalists–most of them at leftist or Kurdish newspapers–have been jailed and attempts to ease restrictions in line with EU practices have had limited success.
Within such boundaries–Turkey has a relatively lively media and would reject the implicit comparison with Iraq’s tight control of press–radio and television.
No one from RSF in Paris or the French Defense Ministry was immediately available for comment.