US Turkey
US Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused U.S. President Barack Obama of criticizing him behind his back over press freedom issues during a visit last week to Washington.

Erdogan's administration has been widely criticized for violating human rights, imprisoning journalists and taking over several media organizations in the country.

After the pair met for closed-door talks on the sidelines of the White House's nuclear security summit, Obama said Friday the "approach they have been taking toward the press is one that could lead Turkey down a path that would be very troubling."

'Behind my back'

The U.S. leader said he raised those concerns with Erdogan, who in turn on Sunday denied they discussed the issue, saying Obama made the comments "behind my back."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a working dinner with heads of delegations for the Nuclear Security Summit at the White House in Washington, March 31, 2016.

Erdogan added that Turkish media outlets called him "thief" and "killer" without being shut down.

“We have never done anything to stop freedom of expression or freedom of press," he said in a separate interview with CNN last week.

"On the contrary, the press in Turkey had been very critical of me and my government, attacking me very seriously. And regardless of those attacks, we have been very patient in the way we have responded to those attacks," Erdogan said.

Press freedom report

Washington-based Freedom House, which publishes an annual report on press freedom around the world, indicates conditions for media in Turkey have deteriorated during the past five years. The organization calls the country "Not Free" in its 2015 assessment.

Reporters Without Borders also ranks Turkey at the bottom of its 2015 World Press Freedom Index: 149 out of 180 countries.

Anti-Erdogan protestor Deniz Lohja, an American of
Anti-Erdogan protester Deniz Lohja, an American of Turkish descent, is prevented by a Washington police officer from crossing near the supporters of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a rally outside the Brookings Institution in Washington, March 31, 2016, where Erdogan spoke.

The anti-press accusations against Turkey flared in Washington last week, when Erdogan's guards clashed with protesters and media outside the Brookings Institution, where the Turkish president was speaking.

The physical altercation prompted local police to separate the groups.

Under state control

In early March, Ankara also drew international attention when a Turkish court ruled to place leading daily Turkish newspaper Zaman under state control. 

“This ideological and unlawful operation shows how Erdogan is now moving from authoritarianism to all-out despotism. Not content with throwing journalists in prison for ‘supporting terrorism’ or having them sentenced to pay heavy fines for ‘insulting the ‘head of state,’ he is now going further by taking control of Turkey’s biggest opposition newspaper," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement by the organization. 

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