Angela Merkel, Ahmet Davutoglu.jpg
Photograph: EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was travelling to Turkey on Saturday against the backdrop of a controversial deal to return illegal migrants from Greece to Turkey and a series of media scandals that have soured German-Turkish relations.

Merkel will visit the town of Nizip in the southern province of Gaziantep on the invitation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Nizip is home to thousands of Syrian refugees living in a government-run container camp.

In a deal agreed to last month, the European Union is offering Ankara a package of incentives - from billions in refugee aid to progess on visa-free access to the bloc for citizens - in exchange for help in returning migrants. Turkey already hosts 2.2 million Syrian refugees.

Championed by Merkel and called inhumane by critics, it is aimed at discouraging people smuggling via treacherous sea routes and cutting off the main migration trail from the Middle East to Europe.

EU President Donald Tusk and European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans will travel to Turkey alongside Merkel, with Tusk's office saying their visit would serve as a "follow up" to the agreement.

The EU has faced huge criticism over the deal, including from the UN refugee agency, parliamentarians at the Council of Europe, opposition politicians in Germany and human rights watchdogs.

"Instead of touring a sanitized refugee camp, EU leaders should look over the top of Turkey's new border wall to see the tens of thousands of war-weary Syrian refugees blocked on the other side," said Judith Sunderland, associate director of Human Rights Watch's Europe division.

"Then they should go to the detention centre where people deported from Greece are held incommunicado," she said.

"What Angela Merkel really needs to bring back from Turkey are not smiling photos but cast-iron guarantees that the Turkish authorities will stop sending refugees back to their countries of origin and start implementing its asylum laws effectively," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia.

Merkel is also under fire for her decision earlier this month to grant a Turkish request to allow the prosecution of German comedian Jan Boehmermann, who mocked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on television. Under German law, a person can be prosecuted for insulting a foreign head of state.

It was the latest incident involving the media to strain diplomatic relations and spark a battle over free speech. In March, a public broadcaster showed a satirical song that poked fun at Erdogan, prompting Ankara to summon the German ambassador.

Merkel's popularity has slipped in Germany as critics accuse her of ceding to Turkish pressure because she needs Ankara's help in halting the refugee influx, even as Erdogan has taken an increasingly aggressive stance toward the press and opposition critics.

Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said that while her visit to Turkey was not an occasion for bilateral talks between Berlin and Ankara, the chancellor would not avoid topics that "worry us."

"Of course, issues of democratic development and freedom of speech and the press in Turkey are always important," Seibert said Friday.

Reports Without Borders ranks Turkey 151, out of 180 countries, on its Press Freedom Index. Prominent journalists have recently been put on trial or denied accreditation and newspapers taken over by the government. The government insists there are no restrictions on the press.

As part of her visit, Merkel should "plan a meeting with an opposition politician and visit an opposition newspaper, whose number is rapidly declining," Cem Ozdemir, the head of the opposition Greens, told regional newspaper Muenchner Merkur.

Just before Merkel was due to leave for Turkey, Germany's Foreign Ministry put out a statement noting that Turkish press freedom had deteriorated further since November 2015 and that 29 journalists are currently in police detention there.

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