The latest assault on press freedom in Turkey

The latest assault on press freedom in Turkey

Last Thursday, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, the editor-in-chief and the Ankara representative of Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, were arrested and put in jail. They might stay in prison for months, perhaps years. The prosecutor who demanded their arrest has also demanded prison sentences of 42 years!

For what crime? Killing people, robbing a bank, or selling drugs? No, the “crime” of these two journalists was merely a news story that Cumhuriyet published on May 29, 2015. Headlined, “Here are the weapons that Erdoğan denied,” the story was an exposure, with never-seen-before photos, of weapons in the famous “MİT trucks.” 

The MİT is Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, and the trucks in question were stopped and investigated by prosecutors on their way to the Syrian border in January 2014. Apparently, these prosecutors were affiliated with the Gülen movement of U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who was engaged in a bitter political war with the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government. Whatever their motives were, the prosecutors exposed that the MİT was carrying controversial cargo to a certain party in the Syrian civil war. In response, the Erdoğan government immediately had them dismissed and closed the investigation. Meanwhile, the interior minister declared that the trucks were carrying nothing other than “humanitarian aid to Turkmens.” 

Months later, however, Cumhuriyet published the photos that the prosecutors apparently took during their investigation, showing many mortar shells and bullets. Erdoğan condemned this “high treason” and vowed that “they will pay for this.” With last week’s arrests, we learned how this “payment” came to be. 

There is no doubt that this is yet another assault on press freedom, in a Turkey whose independent media has already been suffocated, quite unabashedly, by a popularly elected but a zealously authoritarian government. If they were journalists in a free country, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül would not be questioned at all for such an exposure. 

Some pro-government writers argue otherwise, trying to justify the arrests by drawing analogies with the cases of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. But that is sheer nonsense. Daily Cumhuriyet did not hack the government system and steal classified information. They just published the evidence that was present in a legal investigation. Whether that investigation was led by prosecutors with a certain political agenda is not their problem. 

If there is anything in the West that can be likened to this drama, it is the Iran–Contra affair, where the U.S. government secretly armed certain “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s. Of course, no American journalist was then put in prison for committing “high treason” by writing about that famous covert operation.

However, I do have one criticism for Cumhuriyet and other opposition circles in Turkey that have published about the “MİT trucks.” The fact that Turkey was shipping arms to Syria does not mean, let alone prove, that these arms were going to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as they often assert. My personal sense is that the trucks were destined to what some call “moderate rebels” or “moderate jihadists” fighting against both the Bashar al-Assad regime and ISIL. Whether this was a wise policy for Turkey can of course be debated, but to passionately claim that “They were arming ISIL!” without any evidence is more like propaganda than objective journalism.