Erdem Gül, the Ankara bureau chief for Cumhuriyet newspaper, went to trial today alongside his colleague Can Dündar, Cumhuriyet’s editor-in-chief. They were originally detained in November after President Erdoğan filed a complaint against the two for publishing photographs allegedly showing Turkish trucks carrying ammunition to Syrian militants. After spending 92 days incarcerated, the two journalists were released when the Constitutional Court overruled their imprisonment, stating that their “rights to personal liberty and security had been violated.”
Today, both journalists arrived for their trial to packed courthouse in Istanbul. Can Dündar told reporters this trial aims to intimidate other journalists. “While punishing us, what they really try to achieve is to silence others,” Dündar said. “It’s blind-folding and intimidating.” Since they were released from prison in February, the government has cracked down further on media freedom, closing down the largest opposition paper, Zaman. The hearing has now been postponed as the court ruled the trial be conducted in secret.
“Journalism is not a crime. Today, we have to defend that. It was said in the Constitutional Court ruling that what we did was just journalism. We are here to defend the law of the Constitutional Court. We did not commit a crime and we will keep on doing journalism,” Gül stated as he entered the court.
On Thursday, dozens of writers wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, calling for the charges against the Cumhuriyet journalists to be dropped. “We are extremely concerned about the increasing climate of fear and censorship and the stifling of critical voices in Turkey,” the letter published by PEN International stated. “We believe that Can Dündar and Erdem Gül are facing life in prison simply for carrying their legitimate work as journalists.”
In this exclusive interview, Farhad Mirza talks to Erdem Gül from his office in Ankara about censorship, press freedom and recent crack-downs on journalism in Turkey.
Farhad Mirza: We have recently observed a massive crack-down on press freedoms in Turkey. Lately, the government has been going through legal institutions, such as the courts, to target journalists and media outlets, such as Zaman. What is the relationship between the government and the judiciary, how do the courts choose the trustees who were appointed to take over Zaman’s editorial board, and what do you have to say about your own case.
Erdem Gül: There’s been a lot of confusion over legal matters in Turkey in recent years. There have been less and less court cases and decisions where anyone could clearly point to the crime and the punishment due to the fact that the government has drastically altered the structure of the courts. The process of taking over Zaman and Today’s Zaman happens through appointed agents called “kayyum”. This decision is given by a judge (sulh hukuk hakimi) presiding over the matter alone, without consulting with any sort of commission or council. The decision to arrest us was given by this same kind of judge. These single-judge “courts” had been instituted about 1.5 years ago, after the 17-25 December issue and have been producing decisions in line with the wishes of the government.
A constitutional court has given a decision in your favor. Can you give us details about the court’s decision?
The reasoning behind the decision was published on March 9th. Like I said, the judge who ordered our arrest is the “sulh hukuk hakimi”. There are 9 of these judges in Istanbul. All 9 of these judges almost always fulfill the requests of the prosecutors. They refused our complaints and appeals to overturn our arrest warrants until our indictments were prepared and the trials started. The first hearing was on the 25th of March. The Constitutional Court recognised our right to appeal and accepted our individual applications for legal review. After a speedy investigation the Court decided that the arrest warrant was ungrounded due to the fact that the exercise of the profession of journalism cannot be considered a crime, and set us free after 92 days of incarceration. The case continues in our own court but the Constitutional Court’s decision to nullify our arrest warrants also contains provisions that negate certain points in our indictments.
President Erdoğan has refused to accept the decision of the constitutional court. How do you feel about that?
The President founded his party that is in power today in the 2000s, in 2001-2002 but before that he was the Mayor of Istanbul under the now-banned Refah Partisi (Welfare Party). He had recited a poem, that said something like “the mosques are our barracks” and received a 6-month sentence. Just like now, we campaigned back then for democratization, the unbridled freedom of speech, and for the removal of anti-democratic provisions in the legislation. I personally stated that no matter what the content, nobody should be jailed or punished for reciting a poem. The government held this position for a while as well. In recent years, there have been discussions regarding Turkey-EU relations and the democratisation process. However, right now, we are discussing the issue of the presidential system. We are worried that a transition to a presidential system might lead to increased pressure and a crackdown on the media, a reversal of all the democratic gains and a more oppressive, authoritarian country.
The same Constitutional Court that set us free also presided over the case of whether the AKP was to be banned. The Court decided not to dissolve the party, allowing the AKP to survive. President Erdoğan, who was then the Prime Minister, benefited personally from such a decision.
Do you think that the takeover of Zaman is a matter of personal enmity between Erdoğan and Gülen? Or, as some analysts have suggested, is it a political issue with wider implications for press freedoms in Turkey and relating to the referendum on the Presidential system? Do you think your acquittal is connected with the Zaman case?
The answer to your first question is: The Turkish government considers Fethullah Gülen’s movement, “cemmat”, as a criminal organisation. This has been a quarrel that started at the end of 2013, beginning with the events of 17-25 December. They used to be colleagues, the President and cemaat, and he even asked them what more they wanted from him. This is the reality but I don’t believe that the oppression of democracy, freedoms, thought, speech and the media stems solely from the pressure on Gülen and his cemaat. Rather, it is part of a wider phenomenon where policies are being imposed across the country which restrict freedoms, whether they are directed by the police or the judiciary. Television stations are becoming uniform, and oppositional voices are being suppressed. Even the Doğan media group, which can hardly be considered as critical, is being suppressed. So I think that the repression is far-reaching, with everyone being affected by it.
What do you think about the timing of this takeover? Why now?
Instead of giving you my personal opinion I can tell you what most people believe and feel. At least half of Turkey believes there is a real danger of the country moving towards an authoritarian one-man regime; the presidential system is a very contentious subject, and to accomplish that there has to be a referendum, with the AKP needing another 13 seats in Parliament. If they can acquire these 13 seats they will organize a referendum, but the campaign aims to silence all critical voices to such a system. There are names within AKP who have held prominent posts in the past who have frequently voiced their concerns over the increased authoritarianism of this government. Abdullah Gül, the former President, Bülent Arınç, the Speaker of the Parliament who was deputy Prime Minister under Erdoğan’s cabinet, and Hüseyin Çelik are some examples. These people were very close to Erdoğan, but now they are disturbed by the increasing authoritarianism of the AKP. The spread of such concern from the opposition within the AKP is proof that freedom of speech and democratic rights are being severely restricted across this country.
Do you feel protected by the decision given in your favour by the constitutional court? How are other journalist’s reacting to the recent events surrounding you and Zaman?
Taking over a newspaper is a direct attempt at censorship. Our best example of this is Zaman. Regarding other channels and newspapers that are active, the content of their reporting and their editorial structure is being altered through pressure applied on the newspapers’ owners. Taking over is open censorship, but self-censorship also exists. My arrest, and the extremely grave penalties that they attempted to impose on us, breeds fear into the rest of the media. The decision of the Constitutional Court clearly states that there is no evidence against us except for our news reports. Therefore, being able to crackdown on journalism with such ferocity frightens and threatens the rest of the media outlets.
Do you feel safe, or do you think there will be other cases against you? Do you feel pressure in your line of work under the current situation?
Definitely. As we’re part of this trial there are points of concern, but the Constitutional Court that gave the decision to release us, to reopen twitter, or to keep the President’s party afloat is a reality too. On one hand, in our day and age, there is something called universal justice. When we were arrested, we knew that we had never committed any of the crimes enumerated in our indictments. We were at ease knowing the only evidence against us was our news articles. It is unacceptable that the penalty for writing and reporting be life in prison. We feel comfortable knowing that, but also know that we’re currently going through a period where law has been set aside in Turkey. Our main concern is the effect such disregard for the law has had on the wider population in terms of freedom of thought, speech and writing.
There is talk in the media that other newspapers will suffer the same fate as Zaman. Cumhuriyet, the newspaper you represent in Ankara, is reportedly identified as the next target.
We don’t want to think about that. It should not happen in a properly-functioning legal system. I believe the closure of newspapers cannot be explained by the government’s feud with the Gülen community, and is related to the rescindment of democratic rights. Turkey is going through an alarming moment, with many things we never thought possible taking place over the last 2-3 years.
Matt Kasper and Orhan Martinez translated this interview.
*A special thanks to Erdem Gül for his willingness to participate in this interview. A special thanks also to Matt Kasper, and Orhan Martinez, for facilitating and translating this interview.
Farhad Mirza is a freelance journalist, writer and researcher. He writes for various publications about social justice, migration and urban culture. He is currently based in Berlin, Germany.