[ISTANBUL] – Can Dündar, one of Turkey’s most prominent journalists, was arrested last month after publishing front-page stories and video footage allegedly showing Turkey’s national intelligence agency illegally sending weapons to jihadists in Syria.
Dündar, editor-in-chief of Turkey’s oldest daily, Cumhuriyet, and his Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül face charges of espionage, joining a terrorist organization and revealing confidential documents, that were presented by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s personal lawyers.
The arrests have been loudly condemned both in Turkey and abroad.
Christophe Deloire, the Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders, (RSF) that awarded Cumhuriyet its 2015 Press Freedom Prize only weeks before the arrests, held an urgent press conference in Istanbul on December 1, launching an international appeal.
Almost 20 European and American consuls attended his briefing.
“Two journalists are in jail, officially for terrorism, [but] in fact for publishing revelations about weapons deliveries to Islamist groups,” Deloire told The Media Line. “On the contrary, I would say they are fighting against terrorism.”
The government also launched an investigation into Cumhuriyet’s tax accounts. In 2009, following revelations about the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) alleged involvement in a German charity scandal, the government presented the owners of the Hürriyet daily, a major Turkish publication, with two unprecedented fines amounting to more than $3 billion.
“This is one of the main tools of the government to sort of punish newspapers in a financial way,” Erkan Saka, a media studies professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told The Media Line. He added that Cumhuriyet is particularly vulnerable to such attacks because it’s owned by a small foundation rather than by a large conglomerate.
Last July, the prominent journalist Kadri Gürsel was fired from the newspaper Milliyet after a tweet deemed insulting to Erdoğan. He also attended the press conference, and spoke about pressure applied against journalists in Turkey.
“The nature of the pressure aims not [just] to control journalism but it’s about exterminating journalism and transforming the whole mainstream media into a propaganda tool,” he told The Media Line. “Not only every year, but every month it’s getting worse.
The US State Department released a statement following the arrests of Dündar and Gül, saying, “the investigation, criminal charges, and arrest raise serious concerns about the Turkish government’s commitment to the fundamental principle of media freedom.”
The head of the largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP,) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, visited Cumhuriyet’s office in Istanbul and called the arrests “a black spot in our democratic history,” subsequently releasing a statement saying, “if not those who commit crimes, but those who report the crime, are being arrested, then nobody should say, ‘The press is free and the judiciary is independent and impartial in Turkey.’”
Last May, Cumhuriyet reported that in January, 2014, Turkish gendarmes, sent by a prosecutor, twice intercepted trucks operated by the country’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) that were illegally transporting weaponry– artillery, mortars and bullets – to Islamist rebels combatting the government of Syrian president Bashar Assad. At the same time, it published video and photos showing trucks full of shells being stopped by the gendarmes.
The government claimed the trucks were sending aid to Syrian Turkmens, adding that the gendarmes’ actions were treasonous, illegal, and controlled by a “parallel government” run by the U.S.-based Islamic preacher and government rival Fethullah Gülen.
Erdoğan took to state-run television to threaten Dündar, asserting that “the individual who has reported this as an exclusive story will pay a high price for this […] I will not let this go.”
In February, Ankara banned any reporting on the subject. Opposition newspapers like Cumhuriyet refused to comply. In April, the 17 gendarme soldiers who had stopped the MIT trucks were arrested.
Then, last month, Erdoğan appeared to change his position. “So what if MIT trucks were filled with weapons? I believe that our people will not forgive those who sabotaged this support.”
Deloire said that during times of political turmoil, independent, critical journalism is especially crucial.
“It’s thanks to newspapers like Cumhuriyet that we can know things that wouldn’t be revealed otherwise,” he said. “Can Dündar really added a new energy, a new independence [since becoming editor-in-chief in February]. He’s a news and information hero.”
Professor Saka says that Cumhuriyet, unlike other papers critical of the government, lacks an ideological agenda and is more independent since it isn’t owned by a large conglomerate.
“Cumhuriyet is one of the very few newspapers that is doing quality journalism in Turkey,” he told The Media Line.
He says it isn’t inconceivable the AKP will shut the paper down or take it over, as it has done with other papers.
“It would have been more difficult to imagine it a few years ago, but after what happened to some other media institutions, it’s possible,” he said.
In an appeal that was rejected, Dündar and Gül’s lawyers said their arrest was “against the law, the Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.”
Cumhuriyet’s lawyer, Bülent Utku, said they plan an appeal to the Constitutional Court, and if that fails, to the European Court.
Utku told The Media Line that the legal process is political, and because it doesn’t follow legal convention, no one can say for sure what the outcome will be.
“In a trial where the prosecutor and judge are being influenced it’s very hard to predict what will happen,” he said.
Also at the press conference were Dündar’s wife, Dilek, and 20-year-old son, Ege.
“Unfortunately, Turkey’s courts and legal system have been under the influence of political power for a long time,” Dilek Dündar said during a short speech. “Hopefully one day the legal system will be rid of this disease.”
Ege Dündar told The Media Line that while not afraid, it’s hard to be optimistic when the legal system is manipulated by the government.
“Frankly, I’ve lost my faith in the justice system because I’ve seen many journalists in prison already,” he said. “The only thing I can do is to have hope.”
Erdoğan’s AKP has recently intensified its crack-down down on critical journalists. Just in the past week, several journalists have made headlines for allegedly insulting Erdoğan or other AKP politicians in their articles. Just on December 1, nine separate hearings were held at the Istanbul Courthouse for individuals, several of them journalists, accused of insulting Erdoğan or his family.
Among them was Meydan columnist and former singer Atilla Taş, who was given a suspended prison sentence of one year for “insulting” İnegöl mayor (and AKP member Alinur Aktaş) on Twitter. He had criticized the mayor for allegedly poisoning 84 stray dogs.
Three journalists from the opposition leftist daily Birgün also appeared in court on December 1. They face jail sentences of between one and four years for a headline calling Erdoğan a thief and murderer, a popular political slogan chanted at protests.
Columnist Hayko Bağdat from the liberal opposition paper Taraf also gave testimony on December 1 after charges were filed against him for allegedly insulting Erdoğan in an article.
Dündar and Gül aren’t the only Cumhuriyet journalists targeted by the government. Canan Coşkun, who also works for the paper, faced an unusually harsh sentence– more than 23 years—at her hearing last month, following a piece published last February allegedly revealing the corruption of judges and prosecutors tied to AKP officials.
Coşkun told The Media Line that she and her colleagues refuse to be intimidated.
“We’re not afraid and we don’t self-censor,” she said. “If journalists don’t write about these things, no one will.”
Last week, Can Dündar wrote a satirical letter from prison, “Your spy reporting from Silivri,” in which he said that being in prison is at least better than being killed, referencing the recent murder of well-known Kurdish lawyer Tahir Elçi. “The tyrant’s prison is better than death,” Dündar wrote.