“We, as critical journalists, have a higher duty as we become fewer in numbers,” Dündar told Independent Turkey. “In this, we are more than just journalists nowadays, as we defend our rights and the last hope of democracy in Turkey. It is as if we are some kind of freedom fighters, and our fight has only just begun.”
Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, went to court last week in Istanbul on charges of espionage for publishing photos of allegedly revealing covert Turkish arms shipments to Syria. The trial was adjourned until April 22, with both Dündar and his Cumhuriyet colleague, Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül, facing life imprisonment. Independent Turkey spoke to Dündar before his trial hearing, about the important role journalists facing prosecution have in defending democracy in Turkey.
“I knew the story was big at the time, and was fully prepared for its repercussions, but I never imagined I’d be accused of espionage,” Dündar explained from his office in Istanbul. “They were caught trafficking arms into Syria without the knowledge of the Turkish parliament and public. This is an international war crime.”
In January 2014, trucks belonging to the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) were stopped near the Syrian border. The MIT officials in charge of delivering the shipment of arms to groups inside Syria reportedly pulled out guns on the gendarmerie. After the initial standoff, the gendarmerie searched the trucks and found weapons and ammunition hidden under the guise of humanitarian aid. Eventually the truck was granted safe passage into Syria after state officials were called in to intervene.
But the damage had been done. The state secret, which most of the government had not been aware of, was out in the open. Turkey was arming certain rebel groups in northern Syria. The government denied the charges at first, before admitting that they had “helped” certain Turkmen groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.
In May 2015, Can Dündar held a meeting in his office on the news story that would define his journalistic career. They planned to break the story that week. He had called a meeting with the newspaper’s lawyers to discuss the legalities of publishing such a high-profile piece.
“We sat in this very same room with our lawyers, who warned us of the consequences of publishing a story the government clearly wanted to keep secret,” Dündar recounted. “We were afraid they’d raid our offices and seize the papers over this, so I flew to London the night before we published the story.”
For Dündar and his team, the news piece had to be published despite the obvious dangers of divulging such a sensitive state secret. “As a journalist, I care about two things: Firstly, whether the story is true or not; secondly, is it in the public interest? We had photographic evidence, so the story was clearly true. And it was certainly in the public’s interest – the fact that I’m being prosecuted is proof of this.”
For many years, there had been speculation that Turkey had been directly arming certain Islamist groups inside Syria as part of an attempt to topple Assad. It was an accusation that Ankara had vehemently denied. But Cumhuriyet’s revelations suggest that such accusations may in fact be true, leaving President Erdoğan’s Syria policy exposed.
Two days after the story broke, Erdoğan threatened Dündar, saying “He will pay a heavy price for this. I won’t let him go unpunished.” The president made it his personal mission to put Dündar behind bars. Dündar, along with Gül, were duly arrested in November and placed in Silivri prison in Istanbul. Three months later, the Constitutional Court ordered their release, and stated that their “rights to personal liberty and their freedom of expression had been violated.”
Erdoğan immediately announced that he would not obey or respect the Constitutional Court’s ruling, claiming that this case “had nothing to do with freedom of expression” as it “was a case of espionage.” Both the president and the head of the National Intelligence Organisation, Hakan Fidan — the president’s highly powerful yet little-seen ally — are plaintiffs in the trial of the two journalists. It is highly personal affair, which is why Dündar believes it was not just a state secret he revealed, but more of a secret of the presidential palace.
“It is a personal crusade against me. This is why I believe I didn’t expose a state secret, but more Erdoğan’s secret – the transfer of weapons was something between the president and MIT,” Dündar said. “For this reason he is after me personally. I exposed the truth, and therefore he wants me punished.”
Erdoğan is not a president who takes criticism lightly. Since taking on the role in 2014, over 1,800 cases of “insulting the President” have been opened, a vast number of them against journalists. Alongside this, critical media outlets have been targeted, with Turkey’s best-selling daily, Zaman newspaper, being subjected to a government take-over earlier in March this year. Celil Sağır, the managing editor of the English-language edition of Zaman until his dismissal last week, spoke to Independent Turkey outside a courthouse where his colleague was standing trial. “The takeover of Zaman led to a board of trustees being appointed who were taking direct orders from the presidential palace,” Sağır said. “It was a decision that definitely came from Erdoğan directly.”
This crackdown on media has taken its toll on journalism. Turkey is not only has the greatest number of jailed journalists in the world, but Erdoğan also directly controls many of the outlets, making him the biggest media mogul in Turkey according to Dündar. Of the 30-odd papers on the newsstands, only four or five remain critical of the government. Dündar’s paper, Cumhuriyet, is the largest of them with a daily circulation of 60,000.
Last week, the Kurdish journalist Beritan Canözer was released after many months behind bars in the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakır. She had been arrested for “supporting a terrorist organisation,” a charge which has now been dropped. Dündar made a point of visiting her as she was released three days before his trial began.
“Whilst I was in prison, I made a decision to support all journalists in jail. To have one journalist behind bars is like imprisoning all of us,” Dündar explained. “My visit to Diyarbakır was a solidarity action as we have both been victims of the lack of press freedom. Beritan’s only offence was taking notes during a demonstration. How can this be a crime?”
In March, various European consuls attended the initial trial hearing for Dündar and Gül, angering the president. “Who are you? What business do you have there? This is not your country. This is Turkey,” Erdoğan said. “You can move inside the consulate building and within the boundaries of the consulate. Elsewhere is subject to permission.”
Such a diplomatic row escalated further when Turkey’s foreign ministry called in Germany’s envoy to explain a 2-minute song published on German media which ridiculed Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. Germany rejected such a protest by stating that “press freedom is non-negotiable.” There’s been some backsliding, however, as it was later reported that the German government pressured ZDF public television channel to remove the song.
Chancellor Angela Merkel herself called Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoğlu to apologise, which suggests that European values of free speech can be applied patchily when it’s politically expedient to do so. Erdoğan has also recently faced problems in Washington, with his bodyguards causing uproar after attacking journalists outside a public event, and with Obama initially refusing to grant the president a one-on-one meeting. The West’s patience with Erdoğan appears to be running out.
“Europe has a duty to support the democratic forces of Turkey, as we’re experiencing a witch-hunt against critical voices,” Dündar said, who accused the EU of discarding their founding principles for short-term gains after the initial refugee deal was made, “Everyone who criticises Erdoğan is branded as a terrorist. We’re experiencing a kind of McCarthyism in this country.”
As the interview drew to a close, Dündar contemplates the prospect of prison again. He appeared calm despite the fact that he is facing two sentences of life imprisonment, if convicted. “Solitary confinement can be difficult to take, but in jail you feel much stronger,” Dündar said. “As a journalist, I can take my profession with me inside. All I need is a pen and paper and I’m happy.”