The arrest of journalists and the crisis with Russia

The arrest of journalists and the crisis with Russia

Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of center-left daily Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gül, the paper’s Ankara bureau chief, were arrested on the evening of Nov. 26 by an Istanbul court on heavy charges including military espionage, helping a terrorist organization and revealing state secrets.

What they did was print some documents submitted to the court regarding an ongoing case which is publicly known as the “MİT trucks case” (MİT being the Turkish intelligence service).

On Jan. 19, 2014, a convoy of trucks was stopped by gendarmerie forces lead by a prosecutor. Apparently they belonged to the MİT and were carrying assistance to certain groups (later on explained by the government as “Turkmens”) fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Nevertheless, the prosecutor confiscated the material and the trucks, which made President Tayyip Erdoğan (who was the prime minister at the time) furious. Combining it with the corruption probes opened only a month previously on Dec. 17 and Dec. 25, 2013, Erdoğan saw a plot against the government by the supporters of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamist scholar in the state apparatus, who had been one of his closest allies up to then. 

So when Cumhuriyet printed some new documents about the case and printed them, Erdoğan (now president) said in public that the paper was under Gülenist manipulation and would pay for it. An Istanbul prosecutor opened a probe against Dündar and Gül upon a complaint by Erdoğan’s team of lawyers and the two were arrested in their first appearance before a judge.

What they did was standard journalism in democracies. What they are facing now should have no place in democracies.

The arrests sparked domestic and international reaction but also turned into a matter of polarization inside Turkey. Some of their colleagues close to Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) were in a “they deserved it” mood the day after the arrest.

Actually the arrest of two journalists is somehow ironically linked to the downing of a Russian jet by Turkish jets for crossing the border from Syria on Nov. 24.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Russian jets have been operating in a region where Turkmens were fighting against al-Assad forces, next to Turkey’s borders.

The link is not only the Turkmens, but the Syrian civil war and Turkish government’s involvement in it.

Nowadays Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are in a war of words about who should apologize for the border incident; after all, it was the first Russian plane downed by a NATO country since the Korean War in 1952.

It is possible that they may find a way to iron things out in the security and diplomacy environment. But the arrest of journalists - and now a prosecutor wants five years for prominent daily Hürriyet columnist Ertuğrul Özkök for “insulting the president” - is not going to advance Turkey’s democracy forward.