Can Dündar: The Symbol of Press Censorship in Turkey
By Ilayda Ozsan
Photograph of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül courtesy of Vedat Arik/Anadolu Press
On May 29th 2015 Cumhuriyet News’ website published an article and a video. In most countries, the article would classify as credible journalism, not criminal behavior. However, the very next week President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan submitted a criminal complaint urging the imprisonment of Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet. The video showed Turkish gendarmerie officials in Adana discovering large quantities of weaponry in trucks reportedly belonging to Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) in January 2014. The trucks were allegedly bound for the Syrian border, to arm extremist Syrian rebels fighting Assad. Despite the evidence, Turkey has consistently denied aiding Islamist rebels such as the Islamic State group.
Erdoğan’s lawyer has reportedly demanded two life sentences for Dündar in his latest criminal complaint. The regime accuses Dündar of forming an illegal organization, obtaining confidential information regarding Turkish Intelligence and committing political and military espionage. This is at least the fourth case that Erdoğan has attempted to bring against Dündar in the last 13 months. In response, Dündar has consistently defended himself and his paper, Cumhuriyet, against Erdoğan’s attacks. On Twitter, he stated ‘We are journalists, not civil servants. Our duty is not to hide the dirty secrets of the state but to hold those accountable on behalf of the people.’
Unfortunately, Can Dündar’s imprisonment was one of the many examples of media oppression. Since the Gezi Parki Protests in 2013, the Erdoğan Government has actively suppressed media of all sorts. The most recent incident occurred after an explosion on January 12th 2016, when an alleged ISIS suicide bomber killed 10 tourists. Shortly after the explosion, the Turkish government issued a 24-hour media oppression. Some might comment that the government is trying to reduce chaos; yet the people argue for the right to know and turn to international news agencies for information.
According to the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey is ranked 149th out of 180 countries, 180 being the worst, with a score of 44.16. To put the decline of media rights into context, the prosecution of journalists has been steadily increasing. Even when Erdoğan has released some imprisoned journalists, they nonetheless continue to face prosecution and could be re-detained at any time. Turkey’s ‘underlying situation’ score in the Index – including factors such as cyber-censorship, lawsuits and dismissals of journalists –worsened, showing that freedom of information and press continues to decline in Turkey.
Dündar’s case continues to proceed through the Turkish court system. In November, Dündar formally faced charges alongside his Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül. Dündar and Gül remain in prison awaiting trial. They live in a six-by-eight foot cell and receive just one monthly family visit. While only one example, the case of Dündar and Gül represents a microcosm of press oppression under the Erdoğan government. The results of this prosecution figure to have broad repercussions throughout the media and Turkish society at large.
While government supporters largely stand by Erdoğan and the prosecution, Dündar and Gül do have some prominent backers. Rights organizations such as Amnesty International have demanded Dündar’s release. Foreign governments, such as the United States, have also expressed concerns over the trial. Most notably, large sectors of the Turkish populace have braved government crackdowns in order to voice their support of Dündar. A recent İstanbul rally reportedly garnered thousands of demonstrators to stand with Dündar.
Dündar issued a response to this popular support mainly from social media:
Trucks loaded with weapons and ammunition, enough to destroy a city in case of an explosion, were sent to a warring party in the neighboring Syria. Turkish parliament, administrative authorities and public were unaware of this undertaking. The sender, AKP government, has persistently denied the existence of the weapons and ammunition in the trucks. The military officials who revealed the shipment and the prosecutors who conducted the investigation were dismissed and arrested.
The people of this country did not know the risks they faced. They were not informed of the vital, political, legal and diplomatic consequences of this shipment.
The duty of a newspaper, of a journalist, is to inform the readers and let the public know the danger and threats.
Aware of its responsibility, Cumhuriyet published the video and photographs of the long-denied fact.
We, the undersigned writers and employees, take full responsibility for this report along with our editor-in-chief Can Dündar.
We declare that President Tayyip Erdoğan’s ‘The person who wrote the story will pay a heavy price’ sentence refers not only to Can Dündar but to us all.
We say ‘I am responsible’.