A step not only for press freedom in Turkey
Two Turkish journalists - daily editor-in-chief Cumhuriyet Can Dündar and its Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül - were released from prison in the early hours of Feb. 26 after being in pre-trial detention for 92 days. The release came after a decision by the Constitutional Court on the evening of Feb. 25.
The court ruled that what Dündar and Gül did in their reporting was not military espionage, as earlier decided by the 14th Istanbul Criminal Court, but came within the bounds of press freedom. Upon the higher court’s ruling, the Istanbul court had to release the two journalists from the infamous Silivri prison.
The trial of Dündar and Gül, who are unable to travel abroad as part of their release, will continue.
They will be tried based on reports published in Cumhuriyet in 2015 on National Intelligence Organization (MİT) trucks allegedly transporting military material into Syria illegally, and the halting of those trucks by prosecutors and gendarmerie forces in January 2014.
The case against Dündar and Gül claims that those prosecutors, judges and gendarmerie officials were acting on the orders of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist scholar living in the U.S. who they say established a “parallel structure” within the state in order to overthrow (then prime minister) President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Gülen – who was once Erdoğan’s close ally during probes and court cases like Ergenekon, Balyoz and OdaTV, as well as military espionage cases against the secular establishment within the military, academia, judiciary and media - is now regarded as an arch enemy by Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
After Dündar and Gül printed documents about the MİT trucks, they were accused of revealing information vital to state security (thus committing espionage and helping an illegal organization), arrested, and now face life in jail. They have also been publicly defamed and targeted, mainly by members of the government and the pro-government media.
The Constitutional Court ruling was based on Articles 26 and 28 of the constitution related to freedom of the press and the duty of the state to protect (not block) that freedom. These references might end up having an effect on the final result of the trial.
The ruling and its justification may also set an example for other ongoing court cases against the media in Turkey and possible future cases. Dündar said upon his release that he was happy to see “there were still judges in Turkey.” Gül said he was happy to be released but the problem of arrested journalists in Turkey was not over yet.
The Constitutional Court decision may also have an effect on Turkish society beyond its importance to press freedom. For some time now the Turkish judiciary has been under heavy criticism for taking decisions under political influence.
It is too early to declare that the Constitutional Court’s decision is a definitive turning point, but it is worth noting that on Feb. 26 an İzmir criminal court acquitted 300 military personnel of espionage charges. They were legally cleared, but their careers and social lives have been ruined.