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Dundar: Turkish journalists are 'freedom-fighters' whose 'fight has just begun'

Editor accused of espionage after publishing photos of covert Turkish arm shipments to Syria spoke to MEE in his last interview before his trial
Turkish daily Cumhuriyet's editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara editor Erdem Gul arrive at an Istanbul courthouse before his trial on 25 March (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey - The trial against Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, began on Friday, in one of the most controversial cases to rock Turkey’s press industry in years.

Dundar stands accused of espionage for publishing photos of covert Turkish arms shipments to Syria. The court case against him is being conducted by a secret court with no media allowed in the courtroom.

“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,” Dundar told Middle East Eye in his last interview before he was due to stand trial.

If convicted Dundar faces two consecutive life sentences.

“They [the authorities] were caught trafficking arms into Syria without the knowledge of the Turkish parliament and public. This is an international war crime,” he said.

The authorities reject his account and insists that Dundar foiled key national intelligence work.

“This is spying because intelligence organisations in every country have almost infinite legal power,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said late last month of Dundar's alleged crime. “I cannot feel at ease when someone interferes in the aid our National Intelligence Organisation provides to the Turkmens of Bayırbucak.”

The case has brought international attention and has been front and centre of a wider uproar about media freedom in the country with the authorities accused of trying to stifle dissent and cracking down on journalists.

In recent months, the government has taken over the opposition Feza media network and arrested journalists, sparking condemnation from the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has accused authorities of putting press freedom “under siege”.

Earlier this week, Erdogan told CNN that he was not “at war with the press” and was not doing “anything to stop freedom of expression or freedom of press".

"On the contrary, the press in Turkey had been very critical of me and my government, attacking me very seriously. And regardless of those attacks, we have been very patient in the way we have responded to those attacks,” he said.

But battle lines appear to have been drawn with many anti-government journalists claiming that they are being directly targeted.

Dundar’s case highlights the ongoing tug-of-war. 

Security or censorship?

In January 2014, trucks belonging to the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) were stopped near the Syrian border.

The MIT officials, who were in charge of delivering the shipment of arms to groups inside Syria, reportedly pulled out guns on the gendarmerie. After a standoff, the border guards searched the trucks and found weapons and ammunition hidden under the guise of humanitarian aid. Eventually, after state officials were called to intervene, the truck was granted safe passage into Syria.

But the damage was 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. At first, the government denied the charges, but later admitted that they had “helped” certain Turkmen groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In May 2015, Dundar held a meeting in his office about a news story that was going to change his life and called in the lawyers in hopes of publishing that week.

“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,” Dundar said.

“We were afraid they would raid our offices and seize the papers over this, so I flew to London the night before we published the story.”

For Dundar, the news piece had to be published despite the obvious dangers.

“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.”

Secret exposed

For years, there had been speculation that Turkey had been directly arming certain groups inside Syria as part of an attempt to topple Assad, although Ankara vehemently denied the allegations. Dundar’s revelations, however, proved such accusations were true, and left Erdogan’s Syria policy exposed.

Erdogan was furious and, in November, authorities arrested Dundar, along with his Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul. 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” but the authorities pushed back.

Erdogan announced that he wouldn’t obey or respect the Constitutional Court’s ruling, saying that the case “had nothing to do with freedom of expression” as it “was a case of espionage”. 

Dundar, however, said that Erdogan has made the affair personal and believes Dundar’s revelations were not a state secret, but more of a secret of the presidential palace. Both the president and the head of the National Intelligence Organisation, Hakan Fidan - the President’s highly powerful but little-seen ally - are plaintiffs in the trial.

“It is a personal crusade against me. This is why I believe I didn’t expose a state secret, but more Erdogan’s secret - the transfer of weapons was something between the president and MIT,” Dundar said.

The government did not reply to MEE’s request for an interview in time for publication, but scores of public statements have recently been made on press freedom helping to highlight the ongoing rift.

Since taking over as president in 2014, over 1,800 cases of “insulting the president” have been opened in Turkey, a vast number of them against journalists.

At the same time, Erdogan has expanded his reach and now directly controls many of the outlets, with Dundar claiming he is now the biggest media mogul in Turkey due to his heavy-handed approach to media.

Of the 30-odd papers on the newsstands, only four or five are critical of the government. Dundar’s paper, Cumhuriyet, is the largest of them with a daily circulation of 60,000.

'A kind of McCarthyism'

Some journalists have vowed to fight back, and Dundar said that he is willing to become a champion for the cause – no matter the consequences.

“Everyone who criticises Erdogan is branded as a terrorist. We’re experiencing a kind of McCarthyism in this country.”

While awaiting his trial, Dundar headed to the Kurdish majority city of Diyarbakir to visit Kurdish reporter Beritan Canozer, who had spent months behind bars before being released this week. She had been accused of “propaganda for a terrorist organisation,” but had her charges dropped earlier this week.

“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,” Dundar said. “My visit to Diyarbakir 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?

“We, as critical journalists, have a higher duty as we become fewer in numbers … as we defend our rights and the last hope of democracy in Turkey,” Dundar said. “It is as if we are some kind of freedom-fighters, and our fight has only just begun.”

Last week, various European consuls attended the trial of Dundar and Gul, angering Erdogan.

“Who are you? What business do you have there? This is not your country. This is Turkey,” Erdogan said. “You can move inside the consulate building and within the boundaries of the consulate. Elsewhere is subject to permission.”

As the interview drew to a close, Dundar contemplated the prospect of facing another stint behind bars.

“Solitary confinement can be difficult to take, but in jail you feel much stronger,” Dundar said, who spent much of his three-month prison sentence in solitary confinement. “As a journalist, I can take my profession with me inside. All I need is a pen and paper and I’m happy.”

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